James Shaw’s ‘State of the Planet’ speech

James Shaw gave the 2018 Green ‘State of the Planet’ speech yesterday:


Five years after the Velvet Revolution that made him President of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, the former dissident and poet Václav Havel, said that:

“There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended.  Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.”

I was twenty-one at the time. The Cold War was over. Bill Clinton was President of the United States. Al Gore… was his Vice President. People were talking about something called the World Wide Web. My friend Danyl had told me his workplace – an IBM helpdesk – had something called ‘electronic mail’, which allowed him to write a message on his computer and have it appear instantaneously on the computer of a colleague on the other side of the world.

What a time to be alive.

It seemed to me that Havel’s words were full of a hope that we were on the verge of writing a new chapter in human history, of creating a new, fairer economic system where everyone could flourish without destroying the planet.

Well, I have to say, we’re still waiting. The post-modern ‘sustainable economy’ is taking a jolly long time to arise from the rubble of the modern age. If anything, the rubble of the modern age is accumulating around us in ever increasing piles, threatening to overwhelm us and everything else on the planet, too.

But, although this speech will, at times, foray into the downright bleak, I am enormously hopeful about the future. Because I believe that we, here in little ole New Zealand, have it within our grasp to lead a breakthrough – to finally, actually, put in place the architecture for a truly sustainable economy and to show the rest of the world how it’s done.

Green Party Co-leaders have been delivering a State of the Planet speech just about every year since we got into Parliament in 1999, an eco-centric take on the more ego-centric State of the Nation tradition.

I will start with an assessment of the State of the Planet; and New Zealand’s bit of it. That’s the bleak bit. Then I’ll talk a bit about the latest thinking in sustainable economics – an area of economics that’s becoming mainstream. And finally, I’ll propose how New Zealand can lead the way in moving the theory of sustainable economics into practice – and what a unique opportunity we have, right now, to do so.

By the end, I hope you’ll see that the Greens have a galvanising mission for our contribution to this Government and that you join us in making it happen. I find it is as inspiring as it is urgent. And it is urgent, for the State of the Planet, is, frankly, not good.


We are now living in a geological epoch known as the Anthropocene – so named because the planet’s atmosphere and biosphere have been reshaped by humans at a scale normally reserved for continental realignment, Ice Ages or colossal meteor strikes, every half billion years or so.

One of the defining characteristics of the Anthropocene, as with other epochs, is the extinction of much of the world’s species. It is estimated that by the end of the 21st Century this Sixth Extinction will herald flora and fauna loss of 20 percent to 50 percent “of all living species on earth”. We are overshooting the Earth’s carrying capacity – and simultaneously overloading that carrying capacity – to the extent that we are using the equivalent of 1.6 Earth’s worth of resources every year. Something has to give.

The Earth’s mammals, birds, and fish, have declined by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. And we’re seeing the largest drop in freshwater species: on average, there’s been a whopping 81 percent decline in that time period. 239 million hectares of natural forest cover has been lost just since 1990.

In New Zealand, three-quarters of native fish, one-third of invertebrates, and one-third of plants are threatened with, or at risk of, extinction. Eugenie, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

OCEANS: More than eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year. New Zealanders use 1.6 billion single-use plastic bags every year, many of which end up in our oceans and on our shorelines.

WASTE: Worldwide, we use one million plastic bottles every minute. On average, each New Zealander uses 168 plastic water bottles a year.

CLIMATE CHANGE: While there have been glimmers of hope with the signing of the Paris Agreement, current atmospheric concentrations of Greenhouse Gases are at 400 parts per million, the highest concentration of these gases in our atmosphere in at least the last three million years. And despite our perception of our clean and green image, Kiwis have the fifth highest emissions per person in the OECD, and our gross emissions have increased by 24 percent since 1990.

All of this means that eco-systems services – those ecological necessities for human life and wellbeing – are also on the decline:

FOOD SECURITY: There is a third less arable land now than 40 years ago, even though global food production will need to increase 50 percent by 2050 to feed a population of ten billion. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that soil degradation trends have left the planet with about sixty years of harvests remaining. Yet it is estimated that about a third of all food produced is wasted.

FRESH WATER: Nearly fifty countries experienced water stress or water scarcity in 2015, up from just over 30 in 1992; that’s an increase of 40 percent in twenty-five years.

The competition for earth’s resources is fierce:

PEACE & SECURITY: There are now 65 million forcibly displaced persons in the world, of whom 22 million are refugees, 40 million are internally displaced within their own countries.

POVERTY: Although the world has made remarkable progress in reducing poverty, the number of people living in extreme poverty remains unacceptably high with 767 million people living on less than two dollars a day. And while poverty in absolute terms has been cut, inequality is increasing at an extraordinary rate. Over the last twenty years, the wealth of the richest 1 percent increased at just shy of 200 times the wealth of the poorest 10 percent. Just eight men own as much wealth between them as the 3.6 billion poorest people in the world do collectively.

According to research undertaken by OXFAM, in New Zealand in 2017 a staggering 28 percent of wealth created went to the richest 1 percent while there are still hundreds of thousands of children growing up in poverty.


So far, so bleak. Our existing economic model isn’t working.

I believe that growing impatience with some of the consequences of that model led to the change of government last year. Dirty rivers, polluted drinking water, entrenched poverty, growing wealth inequality, road congestion, house prices, homelessness – all of these contributed.

The Deputy Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Winston Peters, has said that this is the beginning of the end for neoliberalism.

But what is it the start of?

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff says that it is absolutely essential to have a compelling alternative frame if the old one is ever to be debunked. One of the reasons why it’s taking such a long time, I think, to get to a sustainable economy is that, although few people would argue against it, no one has been able to adequately describe it, in ways that sounded more credible than the linear, take-make-waste economy of the status quo.

Until fairly recently that is.

Concepts that were sketched out in the 1970s, like Walter Stahel’s Performance Economy, were built on in the 1980s by Karl-Henrik Robert in his Natural Step Framework, and in the 1990s by Paul Hawken in the Ecology of Commerce.

Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough came through in the late nineties and early 2000s with Cradle to Cradle and Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry was a real breakthrough.

In the last few years the Ellen MacArther Foundation’s work on the Circular Economy has brought all of these ideas together in a coherent whole.

Most of these were micro-economic, looking at how individual firms could redesign themselves to become more sustainable in their own right – and there followed a series of inspirational case studies, like Interface flooring, or, here in New Zealand, EcoStore.

But I think Kate Raworth of Cambridge University has probably been most successful in creating a visual model that can compete with our traditional mental models about the economy.

Essentially, two concentric circles, one inside the other.

The inner circle is the ‘social foundation’ of food, water, income, education, resilience, voice, jobs, energy, social equity, gender equality and health – those characteristics that generally trend towards social harmony and stability.

The outer circle is the ‘environmental ceiling’, the planetary boundaries described by Johan Rockstrom and the World Resources Institute.

These are freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosol loading, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, land use change and climate change.

In between these two concentric circles is the safe and just space for humanity – an economy in which prosperity can flourish, within the Earth’s operating limits.

Ms Raworth describes this as, ‘Doughnut Economics’.

There are now some very robust models out there – and enough evidence bubbling up from different companies and countries around the world that have been trying on various ideas – to give us a pretty good idea of what a sustainable economy looks like.

The Greens in Government will be using these new models of economic thinking that balance economic and environmental and social outcomes to guide us in our decision making. We urge others to start doing the same.

Let’s talk about what it looks lik in practical terms for New Zealand.

For starters, all our energy – not just electricity, but transport fuel and industrial heat as well – would be drawn from entirely renewable sources like wind and solar, with zero pollution going into air, soil or water. That’s why the goal of 100% renewable energy generation is in our confidence and supply agreement.

We would have zero waste to landfill: waste would be designed out of industrial processes, and what little waste remains would be captured and reused, refurbished or recycled. Eugenie is currently reviewing the Waste Minimisation Act to achieve this outcome.

In fact, zero would be regarded as the goal in a number of areas – greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, air pollution, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorous loading, zero homelessness, and zero people living in poverty.

We’d be designing industrial processes, products and services that regenerate resources rather than deplete them.

Rather than crossing our fingers and hoping that GDP growth would trickle down into poverty alleviation, we’d be distributive by design, consciously building models of commerce that systematically increase wealth across the widest possible base so all of our people benefit.


So we’ve assessed the State of the Planet and New Zealand’s little bit of it, and the news isn’t all that flash. We’ve taken a look at what the economic response might be to try and turn that around and to create an economy where prosperity can flourish within the Earth’s ecological limits.

I believe that New Zealand has an incredible opportunity to be one of the first countries in the world to transition to a truly sustainable economy and to show the rest of the world how it’s done.

So if you cast your mind back, New Zealand has often been the laboratory of new thinking. We were the first to give women the vote, the first to introduce a welfare state, and leaders in the reforms of the 80s and 90s that gave us today’s crumbling economic system.

We were one of the first countries in the world to put in place the architecture of the current economy. In reality, legislatively, it came down to a handful of Acts of Parliament: The State Services Act, The Reserve Bank Act, The Public Finance Act, The Employment Contracts Act, and The Resource Management Act.

All of these have been tinkered with to varying degrees. The Resource Management Act has been comprehensively messed with by every Government since, the Reserve Bank Act we’re only now about to undertake a review of to see if it’s still fit for purpose. But regardless of how much they’ve been played with, these five Acts, more than any others I think, have shaped the economy of the last thirty years.

The Greens in Government now want to look at what the new cornerstones for the next thirty years might be that reshape the New Zealand economy to be one of the first truly sustainable economies in the world – that delivers for our environment and our people.

One of the key characteristics of the sustainable economy is that we have wider goals than simply achieving GDP growth.

We’ve already signalled we are going to immediately include child poverty reduction targets into the Public Finance Act.

I’m proud to be leading a piece of work to establish a more comprehensive set of social and environmental indicators and developing ways to include them in our economic reporting. For example, this year’s Investment Statement will for the first time include an assessment of our environmental stocks and flows. What we count matters. And in order to change behaviours we need to change what we count.

2018 is going to be a busy year for Green Ministers to start to implement the foundations or cornerstones of a new sustainable economy.

I’ll be introducing the Zero Carbon Act, whilst limited to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, will set the economy on a pathway towards living within at least one of our planetary boundaries. It will be the most significant piece of legislation to protect our environment in the history of New Zealand.

Eugenie’s review of how we use the Waste Minimisation Act will mean a move towards eliminating waste by design, and improving our capture and reuse, refurbishment or recycling of whatever is left. It has the potential to revolutionise how we produce, package and use resources.

Julie Anne and Phil Twyford will be releasing a new Government Policy Statement on Transport which will radically shift investment in our transport systems. Julie Anne will also be leading the project to pay women the same as men for the same work, which in itself will lead to a significant shift in the way our economy works.

I’ll be setting up the Green Investment Bank to stimulate the flow of financial capital towards projects and businesses that reduce our climate pollution. We’ll be calling on the world’s leading thinkers to help us design this shift.

Key thinkers on the sustainable economy will be visiting New Zealand this year. Johan Rockstrom of the World Resources Institute, developer of the planetary boundaries framework, will be here working with MfE and myself. Paul Hawken, author of the Ecology of Commerce, one of the first and most influential books in the field of sustainable business, will be over here in March.

My message to those wishing to engage with the Greens in Government is to engage with sustainable economics. It will be win win for you and our country.


My goal for the Green Party, as a part of this new Labour-led Government, is that, by the end of this term of Parliament, we will have put in place the architecture for this great transition to the new economy. That we fulfil Havel’s vision of building something new from the rubble of the old.

This is pretty ambitious for any Government in a single, three-year term. But it is a particularly ambitious goal for a party of just eight MPs out of 120 and only one of three parties in a coalition government. If we’re going to succeed, it’s going to take something of us.

First, we will need to focus unrelentingly on the big things that put this architecture in place and not sweat the small stuff. There are lots of very worthy but small issues that could easily distract us from the already Herculean task in front of us.

Second, we will need to learn the give-and-take of coalition government more than ever before, but also model to our coalition partners the benefits of collaboration. We are not the Government alone, but no party is. On many of the things I’ve mentioned we have a high degree of alignment with Labour and New Zealand First. Regardless, we need them to do the things we want to do, at the very least because their Ministers are responsible for pulling the levers that need to be pulled in order to make this work. We are committed to making this Government work in a sustainable way.

Third, we will need to be in Government again after 2020, and in Government more often than not for the period of the great transition. The reforms we’re going to make in this term we will need to protect and nurture, as well as correct and embellish and add to in the future. The Green Party is the party of the sustainable economy. While the ideas and proposals we’ve put forward and championed for the better part of four decades are now gaining increasing currency amongst other parties, we will need to continue to take the lead if this is going to become a reality over the coming decades.

Fourth, we have to include everyone, including those who, at least for the moment, disagree with us. This is a generational shift we’re talking about and we won’t be in Government for the entire transition. We have to beat swords into ploughshares and make friends of our enemies. I know that there will be many on our side who, with justification, will say, “They had their time – it’s our turn now and time to look after our own, as they looked after theirs”. That is understandable, and tempting. But it is not sustainable.

A feature of the Greens in Government will be to call everyone in, rather than calling them out. An opportunity to build a better future through collaboration and sharing.

This is going to take everyone and it’s going to take everything we’ve got. If we succumb to tribalism over inclusion we will continue down the same path we’re currently on, creating different groups of winners and losers until our social fabric decays under the wear and tear of partisanship. Some of our oldest and closest friends internationally are illustrating just how badly that ends.

Yes, we do need to look after those who have been excluded and marginalised.

We need to look after everyone.

As I said in my maiden speech, “Time is too short for resignation. Things are too bad for pessimism. It is too big a task for petty politics. It’s too important for partisanship. These we must transcend and transform.”

We get to create this future together, or not at all.

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa

Leave a comment


  1. Kitty Catkin

     /  January 26, 2018

    Well, someone must be using a hell of a lot of plastic bottles !. And it that’s just the water bottles, then…oh, come on, James, who uses a water bottle every two days ? I doubt if I’d buy one a year. I BYO. That means that someone else is using one a day, or near enough.

    Where did that figure come from ?

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  January 27, 2018

      We certainly have guests who do, Kitty.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  January 27, 2018

        How bizarre, I use plastic bottles when I need them, of course, But the idea of buying a water bottle every two days seems very odd-why not save the money and trouble and refill one from the tap ?

  2. “Fourth, we have to include everyone, including those who, at least for the moment, disagree with us. This is a generational shift we’re talking about and we won’t be in Government for the entire transition.”

    And in the meantime what happens to those who have made the land changes but are being financially punished by the existing financial frameworks still structured on the economics of the majority who have yet to follow, egg land rates.
    I have not seen or heard this addressed in New Zealand yet.
    Recognition and financial relief for these people must come soon.

  3. artcroft

     /  January 26, 2018

    The Green brand is built on partisanship and petty politics. Just look at the about face over the TPP.

    • Corky

       /  January 26, 2018

      The only real bullet you have fired in ages , Arty. I was beginning to think you had gone Green and was using sustainable blank bullets…like them Greens fire.

  4. David

     /  January 26, 2018

    Is the gossip about his personal life true..about his fellow refugee Green MP, I know its been on that website but a mate saw something and he was shouted down when he said something but he was pretty adamant about it and he runs a motel. I dont see it myself they dont seem the type.

  5. PartisanZ

     /  January 26, 2018

    I’ve only skim-read it so far but I’m certainly onboard with the general ‘transitional’ ethos …

    Despite my avatar name I agree that we must transcend & transform partisanship …

    “an ethical world or I dissent” …

    People seem to be saying it’s not possible for the Greens to change? Yet the same people no doubt applaud the ‘change’ in Labour when they took a sharp Right Turn in 1984?

    The National Party was a ‘change’ in 1936 from the United-Reform coalition trounced by Labour a year earlier …

    Of course the Greens can change! The same as any individual or group can. Same as each of us on here have over our lifetimes. Their acknowledgement of it is part of the transition … a very healthy sign … They’re bound to be ahead of the traditional, long-term, entrenched Parties still floundering in Left & Right dichotomy.

    ” … create an economy where prosperity can flourish within the Earth’s ecological limits” is only basic common sense. How can this be seen as being ‘radical’?

  6. sorethumb

     /  January 27, 2018

    In her increasingly rare spare time, Ghahraman likes to travel with her partner, comedian Guy Williams. She also likes to host dinner parties, despite confessing to being a bad cook.

    Is she serious about climate change?
    The Green Party Population Policy does not seek in any way to influence the number of children New Zealanders should have, as could be taken from a TV3 news item tonight.
    “One sentence in the policy has been wrongly interpreted to mean the Green Party are putting pressure on parents to have fewer children,” Green Party MP Keith Locke says.
    “There is no way the Green Party would ever dictate to any parent how many children they should have. Every child is a loved and wanted child.
    “It would also be racist to try to dictate family size, given that the various ethnic groups in our society have different birth rates.

    Ecology is cultural. Westerners have smaller families. leftists want to back fill them with fast breeders.

  7. Zedd

     /  January 27, 2018

    too much to read here.. BUT its always good to see the Green agenda, getting airtime (even in the blogosphere) 😀

  8. kiwicando

     /  January 27, 2018

    I hope the greens get some of these policies enacted as we need to take action on the climate change issue now.

    Good speech James.

    I vote for broad environmental policy change, so the political party’s that make those effective changes gets our votes in our family.


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