The Global Community Catches a Virus

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Kennedy Graham

The current global health pandemic is shaking the foundations of the international community of states, possibly to its core.  Those foundations still reflect mid-20th c. political-legal thought, institutional structures, and procedural behaviour.

Over the past quarter-century or so, we have recognised the emergence of global problems, and the need for global solutions to them – primarily climate change, but also the other planetary boundaries of which two have also been breached.  Yet this has not resulted in effective global action for the required solutions.

Will this pandemic be different?

None of us can predict the future, despite a few occasional efforts.  But we do need, and the Centre requires us, to explore the implications of major global events, and their effect on our thought, institutions and behaviour.

Four questions are most relevant to the above:

  1. Context: What is the context for this crisis – is it a unique experience for humanity or not?
  2. Psychology: How, and to what extent, might the psychological state of humanity be changing?
  3. Competence: How is the ‘system’ (nation states plus international organizations) handling the crisis?
  4. Impact: What are the implications for humanity – if it is unique, is it uniquely significant?

Let me explore each of these.

Context

In any contemporary crisis, it is important to survey the contextual terrain.  What is the cause, and the likely magnitude and duration of COVID-19?  Is the origin of this pandemic similar to others before, or is it unique?

This is, of course, not humanity’s first encounter with a widespread health pandemic.  There is plausible evidence of a bacterium-spawned decimation of the population of Europe five millennia ago.  The major known cases, recorded over the last 1,500 years, are best categorised as follows:

  • Historical: Three bacterial plagues in the 6th, 14th and 19th centuries CE;
  • Recent: One major flu virus in the early 20th; and
  • Contemporary: Four virus pandemics (late 20th / early 21st), involving Ebola, HIV, SARS-1, SARS-2.

More specifically:

Bacteria: The three major historical plagues were caused by the same bacterium (Yersinia pestis):

  • The Plague of Justinian (peaking 541-2 CE; recurring until 750), originating from the rat flea from East Asia, is estimated to have killed 40 m. people, half the world’s population, as it spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. It was concentrated on Constantinople with some 5,000 deaths daily there at the peak;
  • The Second Plague, deriving from the same source, commenced in 1347 and lasted three centuries. It originated with the Black Death (peaking 1347-51) which killed an estimated 138 m. people (mid-point) in Eurasia, reducing the world population (then 475 m.) by over a quarter. It culminated with the London Plague in 1665-66, which killed 100,000 (a quarter of the city’s population).
  • The Third Plague, bubonic and pneumonic (originating in Hunan, China in 1855, spreading to India and continuing until 1895 in Hong Kong) killed some tens of millions across Asia.

Viruses: The modern pandemics have been borne by viruses (flu, Ebola, SARS and MERS):

  • The Spanish Flu (1918-20), which probably originated from the war trenches of Europe, affected primarily Europe and India, killing some 75 m. people (mid-point), about 5% of the global population.
  • Ebola (1976-present), a haemorrhagic virus originating from bush-meat and transmitted by tree-dwelling fruit-bats, has been confined to Central and West Africa. There have been 24 outbreaks over four decades, with over 31,000 cases and (with a fatality rate of about 50%), over 13,000 deaths.
  • SARS for ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome’ (2002-04) was a disease caused by the corona virus (SARS-CoV-1). Originating in China (Yunnan, Guangdong) from the cave-dwelling horseshoe bat, the virus affected 8,422 people from 29 countries, with 774 deaths.
  • MERS, for “Middle East respiratory syndrome, is a disease caused by the corona virus (MERS-Cov), originating from bats and spread by camels. It has caused 988 deaths, 52% in Saudi Arabia, the country of origin.
  • COVID-19 (2019-present) is a related virus strain (SARS-CoV-2), with the same source (bats) and geographical origin (China). It originated on 31 December 2019, and as of 31 March 2020 there are 782,000 cases, spread throughout 200 countries, causing 38,000 deaths (3-4% mortality rate) with 165,000 having recovered.

Separate from the above, the HIV-AIDS, a virus derived from non-human primates and originating in Africa, is caused primarily through human sexual contact.  Since the early 1980s, it has infected 75 m. people and killed over 32 m. people (mid-points). Currently, some 38 m. are living with HIV (54% in east and southern Africa).

From the above, the following seems clear:

  • Fatalities from the historical plagues (40 m., 138 m., 20 m.) and the ‘recent’ flu virus (75 m.) are far higher than all but one of the contemporary virus pandemics to date (13,000, 1,000, 1,000, 38,000); the HIV/AIDS phenomenon being the exception (32 m.); the lower fatalities are primarily due to better sanitation plus improved medical knowledge and technology;
  • The difference, however, is that with all previous pandemics, the ‘fatality curve’ has played out over many years, even decades, whereas COVID-19 remains in its infancy. Its global life-span is likely to be numbered in years, not months – to quote Singapore’s Health Minister, ‘this is just the beginning’.

The distinguishing feature of this pandemic is two-fold: it affects, for the first time, a global community, and secondly it is fundamentally influenced by the massive increase in global population and population density. The three historical plagues and the ‘recent’ influenza were cross-regional but sub-global.  The first four contemporary viruses concern the global community but were contained sub-globally.  HIV-AIDS is global, but primarily dependent on specific human behaviour. COVID-19 is different; it is global and it is subject to the whim of Nature.

It is too early to judge where and when the landing will occur.

  • A vaccine is unlikely for at least one year; so ‘behavioural prevention’ is critical. But even today, only a quarter of the global population is in lockdown.
  • While the national curves have bent in China, Singapore and South Korea – comprising one-fifth of the global population – the global curve remains exponential. The geographical epicentre continues to move – from China to Italy to USA, perhaps on to Africa and the Middle East. The lifestyle implications, both as to cause and effect, of wealthy global travel v. crowded ghettos and refugee camps, is an, as yet, unaddressed dimension of this pandemic.

Conclusion 1

This is a unique experience for humanity. Unlike historical pandemics that took greater numbers (to date) of the ‘world’s people’, this pandemic is directly affecting the ‘global community’ – like nothing before.

Psychology

Humanity has been humbled by this event, and is in a state of fright, if not panic. It is the first time, in current human lifespans, that a global menace is directly threatening each individual’s life, on a personal basis.

  • Nuclear conflict and climate change did not make the cut – too abstract or (seemingly) long-term;
  • Even ‘world war’ was, for half of the world’s population, personally remote for the individual;
  • The three previous contemporary pandemics have been ‘sub-global’, not spreading far beyond certain regions or communities.

Not COVID-19. It threatens each of the 7.8 b. individuals, to lesser or greater degree, but directly and personally.  In addition, most of us are digitally linked into instantaneous updating. So, while only a quarter are currently in lockdown, this will grow to a large global majority, and that is historically unprecedented.

What might be the psychological effect?  It’s best to assess the short-term (1 year), medium (10 years) and long-term (25 years).

In the short-term (2020), there are two penetrating experiences looming, for virtually every human:

  • The twin personal concerns of health and finances. Notwithstanding the policy judgements to be made between economic vitality and personal wellbeing with its inevitable doctrinal dimension, these two issues are being directly addressed – unlike the experience of the historical plagues.
  • The unprecedented, and surreal, experience of societal lockdown, bubble isolation and ‘social distancing’ – concepts not entertained just months ago. On balance, the anecdotal feedback at this early stage is relatively positive: it’s a simpler life if you can just get used to it; and you get deferred things done. Against this, issues of collective behaviour, mental health and domestic violence are requiring attention.

In the medium-term (2021-30), there will be a wakening-up-after-the-night-before phenomenon.  Will it be a hangover, or a new clarity of vision?  This depends on several factors:

  • How successfully the personal concerns are dealt with over a decade, rather than one year;
  • How will the individual, family, company and farm, nation, and the human group all judge the ‘wellbeing’ dimension of the experience—a wake-up call for a better lifestyle, or simply a temporary break from 21st c living?
  • How will the global economy, starting with financial lending, quantitative easing, and employment re-generation survive and begin to prosper, albeit in modified form?

In the long-term (2031-50), there will be major implications:

  • Conclusions on how well the international system handled this particular pandemic;
  • How much advance warning specifically on global health pandemics was ignored or downplayed?
  • What are the inter-relationships between global health and global sustainability?

These questions cannot be conclusively answered today, but some are already being addressed. Some scientific and political experts are bravely addressing the tough issues:

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2020/03/23/a-mortality-perspective-on-covid-19-time-location-and-age/

There is no indication that anyone, among the above, is standing for democratic election.

Conclusion 2

COVID-19 will have a penetrating effect on the human psyche, with individuals around the planet feeling vulnerable in an unprecedented way and to an unprecedented extent, querying the economic-social-digital lifestyle of recent decades, and anticipating the possibility of comparable ‘global frights’ in the future.

System competence

How well is the contemporary system (nation-state / international organization) dealing with this pandemic?

  • Will it witness a ‘complete recovery’ that restores the status quo ante?
  • Will it witness a ‘partial recovery’ that retains the foundations but improves upon them? or
  • Will it bring the foundations down, requiring a qualitative replacement, and if so, will that occur through relatively peaceful activity, or through a seminal period of violence, as in the past?

Many national leaders began by assuring their own people that things would be restored to normality quite quickly.  One forecast a recovery by Easter.  Others were reluctant, and therefore dangerously slow, to declare a national concern, then emergency, then remedial measures.  All buckled under, quickly and obediently, to the force of Nature.

There has been widespread concern over the failure of the ‘system’ to heed expert warnings of this type of risk:

  • As Gonzalez et al maintain: “Epidemics usually occur when health systems are unprepared. … As humanity recovers, policymakers must seek scientific expertise to improve their ‘preparedness’ to face future events. … The ultimate goal is to develop a resilient global health infrastructure. … Epidemics destabilize fragile governments, ravage the most vulnerable populations, and threaten the global community.”  US National institute of Health (Methods Mol. Biol. 2018: 1604:3-31)   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28986822
  • Bryan Walsh (BBC) recalls that: On BBC Future in 2018, we reported that experts believed a flu pandemic was only a matter of timeand that there could be millions of undiscovered viruses in the world, with one expert telling us, ‘I think the chances that the next pandemic will be caused by a novel virus are quite good’.”

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200325-covid-19-the-history-of-pandemics

For major global threats, the 20th c. system rests on the centrality of the UN Security Council and collaborative work from any relevant UN agency or programme.  But, notwithstanding some definitional flexibility by the Council since the early ‘90s, primarily to do with armed conflict (internal conflict, global terrorism), the 1945 Charter’s ‘threat to international peace & security’ constrains effective action on 21st c global threats.  Of the three ‘standard’ existential threats in this category, consider the record:

Nuclear disarmament:

The UNSC remains fixated on the non-proliferation regime, and will not consider any notion of a prohibition of nuclear weapons; while the Conference on Disarmament has been impotent for three decades.

Climate change:

The Council, having been forced by some member states (in their presidential terms) to address this since 2007, has refused to declare climate change a ‘threat’ (simply a ‘risk multiplier’); despite the Secretary-General announcing that it was such a threat, in his view.  Meanwhile, the UNFCCC-COP multilateral machinery, comprising 197 parties squabbling like geese, fails to take effective global action since its first meeting in 1995.

Health pandemics:

In July 2000, the Council adopted its first-ever resolution on a health issue (S/RES/1308):

Recognizing that the spread of HIV/AIDS can have a uniquely devastating impact on all sectors and levels of society; …..  Stressing that the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security.

The US, which initiated the resolution, thanked the Council members for the “unprecedented resolution on a health issue–the first in the history of the Security Council”.

A second resolution was passed in 2011 (A/RES/1983).  On neither occasion did the Council declare the pandemic to be a threat, simply a risk, to international peace & security.

With regard to COVID-19, the Council has chosen not to discuss the subject in substance, contenting itself with a statement by the month’s president (China) that Council members were continuing to work on the ‘hot spots’ of armed conflict.

For its part, the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on 30 January 2020) and a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March ’20.  But as an institution, it has been widely criticised for failing to develop an effective preventive framework. Its annual budget (about US$2 b.) is expected to cater for 7.8 b. people – the budget is broadly equivalent to that of Auckland Hospital.  To quote Walsh:

The WHO, which performed so well under the stress of SARS, has botched more recent outbreaks so badly that experts have called for the entire organisation to be overhauled.

For his part, the UN Secretary-General has expressed his extreme dissatisfaction over the systemic and political failings of the international system in battling COVID-19.  See his comments in a recent interview:

“It’s a nightmare that we face. … This is the biggest threat to humanity we have seen in the recent past. …. The best scientific evidence is that, unless there is strong action and we reach herd immunity, this might reach 60% to 70% of the global population. … Millions of people dying in the world, and this is morally unacceptable.  … It’s a matter of enlightened self-interest.  You’re talking about a global pandemic. If controlled, it will work out, but if it spreads like wildfire in the developing world, there will be millions of cases.  … This is not a matter of scaring people; it’s a reality.  … Of course, I’m not happy with the present situation.  There is an effective dysfunctionality in the way all this is happening – the way things are being handled. We do not have a global governance authority. The only way out, therefore, is effective international cooperation. … But it is not only COVID-19. Look at peace and security, the international system has never been so dysfunctional. …  International cooperation has never been at so low a level. … We are at a transitional moment… we are in a chaotic situation – neither multilateral nor unipolar.  Relations between the major powers have never been so dysfunctional as today. …  This is not the moment to fight each other.  … The choice is between chaos and united action.  … This is not a financial crisis; it’s a human crisis. … Power is not in the UN; it is in the nation-states. … So, be responsible, be smart, but above all understand that only in solidarity can we defeat this disease.”

BBC Hardtalk interview (26 March 2020)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=al_3B5t7p88

Action by UN member states is evidence of his concern. On 23 March, the SG urged warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the ‘bigger battle against COVID-19: the common enemy that is now threatening all of humankind’.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.  That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.  It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”  https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059972

Since then, Libyan factions have intensified their actions, North Korea has fired more ballistic missile tests over regional waters, and the Saudi-UAE military coalition has launched further air attacks against Yemen’s capital.

Conclusion 3

Whether national leaders and UN officials successfully change the 20th c. system will depend on how severe the global toll is – whether the reaction reflects historical habit (pick-up-the-pieces and rebuild) or some proactive insight that proves to be unique to the moment.

Impact

To cite Gonzalez, again:

“At present, the world is in an intermediate phase of trying to reduce health disparities despite exponential population growth, political conflicts, migration, global trade, urbanization, and major environmental changes due to global warming. For the sake of humanity, we must focus on developing the necessary capacities for health surveillance, epidemic preparedness, and pandemic response.” (Op. cit.)

Conclusion 4

This pandemic is uniquely significant in its likely effect on the human psyche, calling into question our role as a species on the planet, how we relate to one another and to other species, how we re-think the notions of global sustainability (ecological footprint, planetary boundaries, Earth trusteeship), economic theory and distributive justice, and our political institutions and legal principles.

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COVID-19: Calls for Change

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On 26 March, as COVID-19 was pushing countries into defensive lockdown, former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, called for a ‘much stronger global mechanism’ than the World Health Organisation to deal with future pandemics.

Writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Bildt noted that WHO had declared health emergencies six times in the past decade. He added that the global threats from SARS in 2003, MERS in 2012 and Ebola in 2014-15 were “just three examples of outbreaks that required a sustained multilateral response”.

Yet COVID-19 is being responded to nation-by-nation.

What to do?

The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) still rules our global (dis)order: nation-states’ sovereignty is exclusive, even when the action, or lack of it, threatens others.

China’s failure – as with SARS – to respond adequately to the initial outbreak ensured the spread, first to Italy, which by late March had the highest number of deaths (if China’s recently improving figures are to be believed).

Then note the bumbling initial responses of the Trump and Johnson administrations in the dis-United States and dis-United Kingdom. How are other nations to keep safe if the big ones shamble?

Bildt offered a view:

“A new global institution … would need to have the authority and the means to intervene as intrusively as necessary to stop a contagious outbreak in its tracks”.

Bildt acknowledged that delivering such powers to a supranational institution would ‘not be politically easy’.

In fact, if you believe Kurt Campbell (Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Asia), it is close to politically impossible in the present fractured geopolitical climate. Campbell detailed, in a Foreign Affairs article in March, China’s manoeuvres since it took COVID-19 seriously to present the Middle Kingdom as world leader of the fight against the virus: internal lockdowns, propaganda and much publicised material assistance to Italy, Iran, Serbia and Africa. It is a major producer of masks, respirators, ventilators and medicine.

Just six years ago, it was the US that led the response to Ebola. Now, Trump trumpets national self-interest. It has, with China, dismembered the WTO’s appeal body, and pulled out of the Paris Accord on climate change.

Campbell does muse on how China and the US could conceivably cooperate for the global good.  But the bilateral standoff under Xi Jinping and Trump is not just a contest of Palmerstonian self-interests. It is also a contest of ideas of how a society and polity – including the world – should be ordered.

And that contest is much more complex than a two-counry joust. Put Iran, Japan, Russia, Kenya, Chile, Indonesia and Ecuador in a talk-shop – could they agree on much?

We are global dwellers in this crowded, digitally-tied, water-short, climate challenged and pandemic-threatened world.

But peoples’ ways of organising themselves diverge widely. Through history, this has invited conflict more often than congruence.

Also, most major change in human social-political organisation and activity, including policy and resultant collective-action programmes, is reactive, not proactive – whether the polity is monarchical, autocratic (totalitarian) or democratic.

Water shortages and climate events, later in this or early in the next decade, will generate severe public anger in some countries.  Hunger is not a happy state.  The result is a mix of belated, not properly-thought-through and reactive, political and policy responses.

Whether those outbusts fragment the international system or promote (desperate?) cooperation can be known only at the time.

Meanwhile, there is a potential bottom-up path to that cooperation: coalitions of the willing, whether by nation-states or cities or civil society bodies or a combination of those.

MFAT’s Vangelis Vitalis has been active in the assembly of two small such coalitions.

  • One is on climate-change-related environmental taxes and tariff concessions.
  • The other, just assembled, has agreed on zero tariffs on items needed to fight the pandemic.

That is a sort of bottom-up partial globalism which just might over time catch on, and generate a form of functional globalism. Nation-states work well only if there is bottom-up agreement that those within its boundaries feel their decisions, both national and international, are legitimate.

If such coalitions emerge, solidify and expand their memberships, the human species might, just possibly, conceivably (note the qualifiers) develop over time a response to issues of the global commons to save us from the worst.

The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Yet we humans have got through multiple crises and downturns on smaller scales over millennia (though often with a lot of pain and inhumanity).

So the triggers for action may come early enough to produce enough reactions to save us from catastrophe.

Europe’s terrible plagues drove it to develop in ways that eventually gave it the means to generate widespread material prosperity and global dominance.

Those who look for silver linings might see a tiny glimmer in COVID-19.

Colin James has recently retired from a lifetime of political journalism in New Zealand, including the Parliamentary Press Gallery. He is a Senior Associate in VUW’s Institute for Global & Policy Studies.  

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‘In the Beginning was the Word’

Dr Azza Karam

I recently took office as Secretary General of the largest global interfaith organization: Religions for Peace.

Its six inter-religious councils (IRCs) are composed of the most senior leaders representing their religious institutions in 90 countries.

This was one week before we had to ask all employees to work from home, in compliance with New York State law.

As an individual who feels functional with direct and open communication, where I can get a sense of the people I am talking with, having to take leadership over an office of people I can no longer be with, feels a little like trying to run with legs tied together. It can be done, but it is tough.

This is now the new normal, not only in the US, but everywhere in the world. For the first time in recorded human history, coming together – even within and among nuclear families – is a dangerous option, literally done at the risk of health and lives.

What does the ‘new normal’ mean, for humanity?

Thanks to more governmental regulations designed to ‘flatten the curve’ of a deadly and racing rate of Covid-19 infections, ‘social distancing’ is identified as the only viable option until a vaccine can be developed and given. Social distancing literally means not being in the presence of one another.

In the last decade, several people around the world were learning to communicate, both professionally and personally, via electronic means, which enabled us to ‘see’ each other, while being thousands of miles apart.

Some institutions were trying to move to reducing their carbon footprint from travel, by hosting more meetings/conferences/presentations on-line.

But this was only occasionally done. And it bears mention that when this was done, the sense was invariably coloured by some dissatisfaction for those of us who appreciate actually being in the same space with those with whom we can see and speak.

Most theories of communication insist that nothing can replace being together, and seeing one another face-to-face. Even corridor talk can often make the difference between a peace deal and a continuing war.

This hampering of our ability to be in the presence of one another on a regular basis will definitely contribute to changing the world forever.

As business, finance, education, civic action, religious services, governance, intergovernmental affairs, almost every profession including even many forms of health care, now move irrevocably to almost total and complete reliance on virtual communication, our words will matter more than ever.

What we say, the words we choose and use, and how we use them, will matter even more than they already did. And they already matter plenty, as increasing norms around ‘email etiquette’ also testify for instance.

Use of words, by political and religious leaders in particular, already makes a big difference to the perception of impact and capacity. Some politicians are under heavy criticism for how they are reacting to the Covid-19 crises. Few are praised.

These perceptions are not only based on the laws and regulations being put in place (and when or how these happen). A great deal of value is also placed on the words used.

Words have an impact on human consciousness, something scientists have long studied, and many researchers and health services are committed to. Articulation and eloquence have long defined culture.

And ‘having a way with words’ is a way of either praising special capacity – or bemoaning ‘spin’. Words, and how they are used, form a large part of what many bemoan as ‘fake news’.

So, we know that words matter. Now that we move into virtual communication for everything from trade to learning, from industry to worship, words will matter more than ever.

It is time to learn how to speak with mercy, how to raise interest and make deals with words, how to speak truth to power, heal wounds, raise alerts, voice concerns, convince and impact, even how to show deep love, all with words.

Faith – in anything, from a government and political leader, to a policy, to public advocacy, to all manner of relationships – will have to be elucidated and demonstrated through the word. Never before, have words mattered to so many at all times.

It is time to pay attention, therefore, to how we use the word. It’s time to listen, and learn, from some of those who come from the oldest professions of using, and understanding, and translating, the ‘word’.

Faith leaders themselves are learning to communicate to their communities and congregations, manage worship, very differently – but still very much rooted in the ‘word’.

This is why Religions for Peace has issued a call to all faith leaders from all traditions, ages, regions, and identities, to raise their voice in prayer for and with one another, and to share narratives and stories of love, in times of Covid.

For it is time for the kind words to overflow – to express love and realise healing for this Earth and for one another.

As we gaze upon this world, we recognize we have to contribute to new beginnings for all life. And in the beginning was the ‘word’.

And regardless of where we stand or what mission we serve, the word now has to be love / mercy / compassion / dignity for all life. This is the change we must realise to survive – and in Maya Angelou’s words, ‘to thrive’.

Dr Azza Karam, a former UN official, is now Professor of Religion & Development (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Secretary-General of Religions for Peace International.  Based in New York, she is a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel. This column is adapted from her article in IPS News Agency (25 March).

The Global Economy – with virus

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Rod Oram

The upheaval that Covid-19 is causing in people’s lives around the world is wreaking even greater havoc in the global economy.

The impact will be far larger than the damage caused by the Global Financial Crisis. The remedies will have to be much faster and even more unorthodox, ambitious and far-reaching.

Quite simply, the virus is causing a dramatic slowdown in the perpetual money machine which is the global economy. Incomes enable people to consume, which stimulates production, which generates income for more consumption – a money-go-round generating some $150 trillion a year in global GDP.

The GFC was only a breakdown in the financial system, the lubricant of the economic machine.   This pandemic, though, is causing the economic machine itself to falter.

In response to the GFC one decade ago, it took Herculean effort by central banks and governments to fix the system. Austerity measures and other tools caused collateral damage to economies and societies.

The GFC caused only a brief drop in global GDP, although some countries, mainly European, suffered more. Even so, between 2008 and ‘10, government debt of the G-7 economies rose by 10 to 25 percentage points as a share of collective GDP. Government deficits worsened by four to 10 percentage points. Much of that was caused by lower GDP, which reduced tax revenue and increased spending on unemployment benefits and other measures. Fiscal stimulus was a far smaller cost.

But as I noted already, this pandemic is causing the economic machine itself to falter.

The Chinese economy is thought to have contracted by some 13% in the first two months of this year; JP Morgan’s latest forecast is for a 16% contraction in the US economy this year; and unemployment could reach 20% in the US and Europe.

The first shockwaves have hit here.

On Monday, Auckland Airport served 44% fewer international passengers than it did on the same day last year. In the week to Monday, international passengers were down 25%; Air NZ’s revenues this year could plunge from $6 b.to $1b.; the NZ Hotel Owners Association says its members could, in the most pessimistic scenario, lay off some 40% of staff because of plummeting occupancy rates.

Nobody in the world knows how long and severe lockdowns will have to be to stifle the virus and to buy time to develop a vaccine and distribute it widely. But even the shortest, easiest disruption is still far greater than the conventional economy, aided by conventional remedies, can endure without significant damage.

As Prof Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas (University of California, Berkeley) points out, if virus-containment measures reduce economic activity to half its normal level for just one month, and then to three-quarters for two more months, year-on-year growth will fall by 10 percent.

The NZ economy, like those of other developed countries, is largely driven by its service sectors – retail, wholesale, distribution, hospitality, travel, entertainment – rather than manufacturing sectors. But we’re even more vulnerable because of our large international tourism sector, which until the virus hit was our biggest earner of foreign exchange.  Our government has announced $12 b. of measures in its first support package for the faltering economy. For example, wage subsidies will help small companies keep people employed. But they need to be for all companies, and to be closer to actual wage levels to minimise the drop in consumption.

The next step must a Universal Basic Income, as Bernard Hickey argues: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/corporate/2020/03/19/1086362/what-a-covid-19-coalition-could-do-with-qe

But that would still fall far short of filling the gaping financial hole companies will suffer from a steep drop in economic activity. Only deeply unorthodox remedies, rapidly applied, would work. Here are two which have surfaced already in the US:

‘Government as last resort’

The US government should step in as payers of last resort, argue Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, (University of California, Berkeley). The payments would cover wage and maintenance costs for businesses facing shutdown. This would be “a new form of social insurance, one that directly helps both workers and businesses.”

Their analysis of the US economy suggests that a nationwide lockdown would cause a 30% drop in economic activity in the US over the next three months, leading to a 7.5% drop in annual GDP.

But if the government compensated companies for 60% of their labour costs and half their operating costs (the latter would be down from pre-crisis levels because of reduced activity), the cost would be about 3.75% of GDP, financed by an increase in public debt.

The programme would be limited to three months, assuming the worst of the epidemic was over by then. With damage to employment and capacity reduced, the economy would rebound far faster, resulting in a greater pick up in government tax revenues.

“The direct output loss from social distancing measures would in effect be put on the government’s tab, i.e. socialised,” they write. http://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/coronavirus.pdf

Government ‘bridge loans’

Alternatively, the US government should offer every American business, large and small, and all self-employed people a no-interest “bridge loan” guaranteed for the crisis and repayable after over five years, proposes Andrew Sorkin, one of the New York Times’ leading business journalists.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/business/dealbook/coronavirus-economy-bailout-plan.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage

The only condition is that they employ at least 90% of the workforce and at the same wage they did before the pandemic. He also proposes that companies’ existing banks administer the programme since they already know their customers.

His rough estimate of the volume of loans, assuming a three-month peak to the crisis, is US$10 tr., equivalent to about half of US GDP. Assuming 20% of the loans wouldn’t be repaid because of business failures or avoidance, the cost to US taxpayers would be well over US$1 tr.

“But with interest rates near zero, there is no better time to borrow against the fundamental strength of the US economy, spend the money and prevent years of economic damage that would ultimately be far, far costlier.

The alternatives being proposed may be worse — because the size of the bailouts may be too small and come too late, and because the politics of targeted bailouts at specific industries and businesses would create a morass of anger and distrust.”

The special pleading has already begun. The US airline sector is already lobbying Washington for some US$50b. of emergency support; and on behalf of US aerospace manufacturers, Boeing is pushing for US$60 b. in loans and grants.

Some people might not stomach such support. After all, US corporates have led the world post-GFC in piling on low-interest debt to buy back their shares to supercharge returns for their shareholders.

American Airlines is one of the most egregious examples. In 2015, it reported a US$7.6 b. profit, an astonishing rise from US$500 m. in 2007 and less than $250 m. in 2006, thanks to long pay disputes with its staff, cramming passengers on its planes and charging excessive baggage and other fees. The multi-billion dollar profits kept pouring in over recent years. “I don’t think we’re ever going to lose money again,” Doug Parker, its chief executive said in 2017.

Meanwhile, American boosted its share price by spending more than US$15 b. during 2014-20, buying back its equity. It also shrank its cash reserves and borrowed heavily to finance new planes and to fit more seats to old planes. In 2017 analysts warned it was running the risk of default if the economy deteriorated. But the airline just borrowed more.  Its current debt is nearly US$30 b., nearly five times the company’s current share market value.

This is not an isolated example. In 2018, the Bank of International Settlements, the central banks’ central bank, released damning analysis of what it called ‘zombie companies’ – those that earn too little to cover even their interest payments, and survive by issuing more debt.  https://www.bis.org/publ/qtrpdf/r_qt1809g.pdf

This BIS video offers a summary of its research.   https://www.bis.org/publ/qtrpdf/r_qt1809g.htm

The BIS estimated 16% of all publicly-traded companies in the US are zombies, and more than 10% are in Europe. Indeed, US corporate debt is now equivalent to 75% of US GDP (a record), and higher than before the GFC. Worse, the average US private equity firm has debt equal to six times its earnings. That’s twice the rate that defines a junk bond.

These are just some examples of the post-GFC corporate strategies which have generated unbelievable wealth for some investors.

Covid-19 is creating economic mayhem which will purge some of these excesses.

But once again, governments and citizens will bare these socialised losses. This is the price we shall have to pay to minimise the depth and duration of depression.

That’s acceptable if, this time, we fiercely defend society’s interests over special interests.

Rod Oram is a nationally-known columnist, who gives weekly interviews on RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon, and writes regularly for Newsroom.  He is adjunct professor at AUT and a founding member of the Centre’s Board.  This column is adapted from a recent contribution to Newsroom.

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Global Climate Change

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The pattern ahead of the annual UN climate conference in November 2019 (COP-25, Madrid) was spectacularly familiar:

  • over 25,000 participants;
  • worrying reports from climate scientists;
  • more public anxiety about climate change;
  • mobilisation of civil society, with youth to the fore;
  • exhortations from the UN Secretary-General;
  • an urgent need to ‘close the gap’ between states’ pledges and what is needed collectively;
  • an inspirational slogan: ‘time for action’.

Yet for the longest COP in history, going nearly two days over time, the Madrid outcome was very far from meeting these expectations.

So, what are the unlearned lessons we need to draw, from the UN climate negotiation process, to date?

Madrid followed the pattern of climate negotiations rarely failing to disappoint – of which the most spectacular illustration was the 2009 Copenhagen meltdown.  The only two COPs in recent years that broke with the tradition were COP 21 in Paris in 2015, which defined a new climate regime, enabled by another one that agreed the mandate that led to it – Durban in 2011.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, did not go to Madrid, arguing that this would be a ‘technical COP’.  Beneath all the pre-conference rhetoric, he was right.  Some decisions were needed to make the Paris Agreement fully operational from the end of 2020. Elaboration of the reporting and transparency rules – in other words how countries report their contributions to the global effort and what scrutiny they are subject to – is important in the absence of a legally binding compliance mechanism.  The framework for international carbon markets, a subject which had been troublesome for years before, remains unresolved.

The usual inflated expectations – inflated not in relation to the seriousness of the climate crisis but rather to what was feasible for this conference – proved counterproductive. It should have been obvious from the UN summit earlier in the year that most major emitters, on whom the achievement of Paris Agreement goals depends, were unlikely to raise their ambition at the COP.   Entertaining hopes that they would was calculated to accentuate the sense of failure when they didn’t.

What about the negotiating process itself? Since 2005, when this phase of negotiations began, there has been a proliferation of often overlapping subjects with their attendant bureaucracy. Adaptation, technology, capacity building, a green climate fund, response measures, loss and damage to name some. All these subjects have at least one and sometimes several bodies that require governance arrangements, secretariat support and of course yet more meetings.  Psychologists might term these displacement activities, substituting for lack of progress on the too-hard tasks of reducing emissions and shifting from fossil fuels to renewables.

Madrid saw a reversion to another shortcoming of the negotiations – pervasive and inappropriate North-South contests even over quite minor issues, a throwback to the Kyoto era.  This binary approach had been a long-term hindrance to progress until it was much softened in the lead-up to Paris.

But there are more fundamental lessons.  It is no longer possible to view the United Nations framework of nation states as the determinant of global action on climate change.  Yet the ‘top down’ model of a legally binding agreement with obligations cascading down to the level of nation states then to sectors of the economy persists, even though the Paris Agreement does not follow the model.

Absent from this model is the role of non-state actors, which needs more recognition to reflect the role they are already playing and will need to play in the future. The US group ‘We Are Still In’ formed in 2017 after the Trump administration’s announcement it would withdraw from the Paris Agreement has continued to grow. It includes cities, states, businesses and non- governmental organisations and now embodies 70% of US GDP, over half US emissions, and aims to meet the US target tabled by the previous Administration. If it were a state this group would rank among the three largest economies along with the US and China.  Numerous international alliances of non-state actors were also present at Madrid.  The common view of these participants was that the global transition was going to happen, that they needed to plan for it, and so were taking action autonomously.

The Paris Agreement provides some clarity – a temperature goal, getting to a point of no additional warming well before the end of the century, and the need for long-term transition plans.  It also acknowledges the equal importance of principles of adaptation and finance – an implicit recognition of the responsibility of developed countries towards  poorer countries. It recognises, albeit somewhat timidly, the role of non-state actors.  This amounts to  the most important statement of the problem and how it needs to be dealt with since the original framework convention back in 1992.

Since 2015 the Paris Agreement has been remarkably successful in encouraging action despite slow progress in the international negotiations. Its universality combined with its unprecedentedly fast entry into force in under a year is a powerful signal.  ‘Alignment with the Paris Agreement’ is proving a guiding principle for governments, business and other non-state actors alike and is something the general public can understand.

Acting consistently with the Paris Agreement is happening independently of legal obligations and does not need to await detailed rules from the UNFCCC.  Getting to climate neutrality by 2050 is becoming a de facto standard for developed countries to meet – despite its not being decreed by the Paris Agreement.  Judging progress solely in terms of relatively short-term targets and timetables is a relic from Kyoto era.

The global focus needs to be first on transitions – with targets and timetables serving a purpose of giving some consistency and tracking progress.  The most effective way of ‘closing the gap’ will be by government, local government, business and civil society  working together in the domestic environment in order to achieve a faster low carbon transition.  Increasing pledges at UN climate conferences will thus be able to follow – reversing the presumption that domestic action follows international commitments.

There have been plenty of lessons from the recent history of climate change negotiations; few have been heeded. The negotiating process has not kept pace with changes in the external environment; it has frequently focused on the non-essential.  The result is that the negotiations within the UNFCCC are becoming less and less fit-for-purpose; they have become a sort of complex perpetual motion machine which for the most part does not actually negotiate in the sense of making compromises to reach agreement.  Entering the Paris era is the chance to do better.

Will Glasgow at the end of this year be a rerun of Madrid, or will making a tidy start to the Paris climate regime prevail?  There is of course a new factor in play.   The preoccupation with COVID 19 over the rest of this year, and the drain on public finances, may preclude big increases of ambition or of financial commitments from the ‘rich’ countries.

All the more reason to get the transition to the Paris era done smoothly, to reinforce public confidence.

A global stocktake under the UNFCCC is due in 2023.  This is not far off, and it can be prepared by good coordination at home. With all Paris mechanisms operational, better coordination of states and non-state actors, and more experience of working together, the stocktake will have a good chance of increasing the pace of the transition.

Dr Adrian Macey was New Zealand’s climate ambassador (2010-16), including time as chair of the UNFCCC Kyoto negotiations at COP-17 in Durban.  He was chair of the Centre’s Board from 2013 to ’18.

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The University in the Global Age: Pt IV

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In this final part, I wrap-up my thoughts on the fundamentals of university reform consistent with, and responsive to, the emergence of the global community.

Having argued to date that there is no magic sauce, no equation, no single road-map to university reform for the global age, I nonetheless maintain that reform does not, cannot, occur in the absence of design.

Ultimately, my vision of the global university in the 21st century is one that sees institutions leveraging the strengths of our current paradigm for the co-construction of our common future.

As such, while a strong employability focus acts to address one meta-narrative, there exists a plethora of other imperatives that cut to the core of nurturing future-focused citizens.

And all this in the era of COVID-19.

Yes, our graduates absolutely need to be employable on graduating, and our industries need educated employees to drive their innovation and development.

But our graduates also need to actively engage in reshaping our societies to meet our local and global challenges – living within the planetary boundaries, stabilising the climate, re-establishing strategic stability, making nuclear weapons illegal, handling global health pandemics, dialoguing for common trust among political ideologies and religious faiths.

Despite observing extraordinary innovation in the US tertiary sector during my time there as an Eisenhower Fellow, it was clear that work still needs to be done to position universities at the fulcrum of our collaborative enterprise in humanity’s progression towards peace, prosperity and well-being.  For me, the ‘university of the future’ is one that is connected to the local, national and global community through our collective enterprise of discovering solutions to our mutual challenges.

And oh – we give a few degrees out along the way. We are not degree factories; we are here to help set and actualise the normative framework of society in the development of a closer, more secure, understanding, sustainable and prosperous future.

We need universities to help us ask and answer the ‘why’ questions. Universities can do this this by constantly challenging our perceptions of the future through an increased focus on collaboration in research and teaching so as to empower all walks of society in our mutual responsibility of creating and disseminating new knowledge.

Universities ought not, therefore, see themselves as the sole creators and disseminators of new knowledge – as has been their tendency. They need to position themselves as collaborators and facilitators in the collective creation and dissemination of new knowledge.

With this vision, here are my recommendations on the fundamental characteristics of the university of the future.

Principles, Vision and Plan (Inspire, Lead & Explore)

The university in the 21st c. will not be an accidental educator conducting its business the way it does, because it is the way it always has.

It will have clear principles, it will articulate an inspirational vision, and it will work to a plan. In the facilitation of change (which is, in reality, a never-ending condition), it will apply its principles, have the flexibility to modify and evolve its vision, and found its plans on the notion of agility.   Institutional principles and vision will be informed by the meta-narratives of the time such as sustainability, equity, equality, social enterprise and entrepreneurship.

More specifically, the university will incorporate the themes of student success, equality of access, collaboration and partnerships, and collective problem solving and innovation, within both teaching and research.

This will likely become manifest in commitment to diverse academic offerings – including systems thinking, a commitment to life-long-learning, and digitally added pedagogy if not the possibility of digital delivery by distance. The global health crisis of 2020 will ensure fundamental change in this direction, whether we choose it or not.

Similarly, in research, such principles and vision will likely focus on collaboration, ‘grand challenges’, and a mix of blue-sky research and the creation of patents and commercialization of innovation.

Ultimately, universities will need to be proactive in their community leadership and should embrace their position as change-agent in contributing (if not leading) community discussion on the normative framework for our society in these times of rapid change and development – a discussion that is sorely lacking in our communities, leading to an inability for communities to disagree well, and forge unified pathways to address communal problems.

Budget & Structure (Ensuring structural agility)    

In order to inspire, lead and explore, universities will need to ensure they have sufficient agility to move, and the drivers and incentives in place to feed the creativity of academics, professional staff and students alike.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ of university operation – the strength of our institutions is that we are genuinely ‘multiversities’. Diversity is to be encouraged, and in fact nurtured, albeit within the envelope of clearly articulated and agreed principles, vision and plan.

To effectively support staff and student innovation, the university in the global age will need to ensure authenticity in its mission, and not regard its principles and vision as a mere branding exercise in which a new batch of modern managers and corporate marketers clothe old structures in new garments.

Tangible action will be taken to encourage collaboration in both research and teaching. Diversification in the internal budget mechanisms of institutions will need to occur to discourage hording of students and any nervousness toward collaboration. Cross-subsidization will always be a reality in a university. Business schools will likely always contribute more than science faculties. Tension will always exist, but a general balance of fairness and equity needs to occur in which innovation and development is rewarded and the playing field of competitive funding is at least transparent, if not ‘fair’, in light of identified priorities in spending.

As with the mechanisms of internal budget allocation, there is no magic formula in terms of structure. However, it is clear that structures will need to change. Future universities will not be bound to the traditional Newtonian approach to disciplines operating in isolation to one another and grouped together under outdated constructs such as ‘Humanities’, ‘Sciences’, ‘Business’, ‘Health’ and ‘Creative Arts’.

The addressing of ‘grand challenges’ and greater connection with society (social, industry and governmental) will require the rebirth of multi-disciplinarity and will result in the extinction of many contemporary degrees (and disciplines) and the creation of new areas of research and teaching interest based upon systems thinking and complexity theory. These latter approaches will also occur at scale – something that frustratingly eludes contemporary institutions.

Academic Decision Making

For many, our academic decision-making structures seem to strangle academic independence and creativity. Rather than research & development centres concerned with the creation, development and maintenance of a dynamic future-focused teaching and research curricula, our academic boards or faculty senates are often myopically concerned with ensuring compliance and regulatory adherence.

The future university will flip its academic decision-making processes by genuinely resourcing and prioritizing the academic boards as the institution’s centre of research and development. These boards will likely be small, (12-15 members), with members appointed on merit and from all levels of the academic, professional and student body. They will be charged with the authority to co-create the academic agenda for the institution in partnership with senior management.

Furthermore, it will act to empower the important aspects of institutional operation such as risk management, health and safety, and business case creation to be ministries of ‘how can we work together to make this happen’.

Innovation & Collaboration

In establishing themselves as collaborators in the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, the university in the global age will wed its fate to its community. University communities include staff and students as well as stakeholders, civil society and even the planet. Such universities will co-develop with local government and industry, and will plan to ensure campus as a community resource.

In other words, they’ll leverage public-private partnerships to build infrastructures of significance to their region.  The university will seek to join forces with local government and industry to lobby for an international airport. A maligned regional town to avoid? The vitality of the town will be recognized as inseparable to the fate of the university.

They’ll collaborate with local health providers to win lucrative construction grants and develop new approaches to health care delivery in the region. They will co-ordinate with local government on rejuvenation projects, public transport and housing initiatives, improve water quality, recycling and wider education initiatives. The future university will make it a badge of honour – perhaps even a principle – to stand ‘with, for and by’ their community in everything they do.

Management will seek to seed projects and innovation within a supportive and encouraging environment – rewarding success and accepting failure. They will be clear on their risk tolerance, and in what circumstances risks ought to be taken. They will not merely seek to establish an entrepreneurial hub or innovation lab (“because the competition has one and we must keep up”).  It will seek to nurture the philosophy of innovation across the entire institution.

Conclusion

I very much enjoyed my travels across the US as an Eisenhower Fellow. I hope you have found my comments interesting and provocative.

I have a vision for the tertiary sector – not merely for New Zealand but the globe. My vision was tried in the fires of the Christchurch earthquakes, and inspired by the leadership of students from whom I learned a great deal on effective community engagement.

As a planet we have numerous imperatives. As people, we have near unlimited capacity for innovation and development. Universities, I believe, sit at the intersection of these realities – if universities cannot leverage their incredible tradition and strengths to do something great for all humanity then I am not sure any sector can.

I am up for the challenge, and I very much look forward to playing a part in our discussion on the development of the future university in the global age.

Prof Chris Gallavin is Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor at Massey University, and a member of the Centre’s Board.

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Internationally hot, domestically not’

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Legal personality is an established part of the law in New Zealand and similar countries. It is widely accepted, for example, that a company or incorporated society can be considered a legal person.

Over the last half-century, however, the argument has been advanced that the right of legal personality should also be extended to the environment, and to individual natural features.

Over the past decade I was engaged, somewhat intimately, in this issue as Minister of Waitangi Treaty Negotiations, and as Attorney-General.  In 2014, a Treaty settlement between the Crown and Whanganui River iwi agreed to acknowledge legal personhood for the river, and implement this in domestic law.

So, how visionary is this?  And how practical in the real world of politics?  Where does New Zealand stand, within the global context of the rights of nature movement?

We were, I think, among the pioneers around the world in taking the 2014 to ’17 initiative.  Here are my thoughts on the matter.

In the years since Christopher Stone wrote a now-famous 1970 article about whether or not trees can have legal standing, the concept of recognising legal personality or rights in nature has come to the forefront of the environmental movements in many countries.

In the US, a number of examples now exist of cities and municipalities recognising legal personality in nature.

  • One of the first was Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, where the borough banned the dumping of toxic sewage sludge as a violation of the rights of nature.
  • That was followed by further community-led initiatives across the United States, including campaigns in some states for constitutional amendments.
  • In 2019, voters in Toledo, Ohio, approved an amendment to the city’s Charter that established a bill of rights for Lake Erie and recognised that the lake and its watershed “possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

Several other countries have embraced the concept.

  • Ecuador, whose national constitution was amended in 2008 to recognise the rights of nature.
  • In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognised a river as having rights to “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration”.
  • In 2017, India’s Uttarakhand High Court granted legal personhood to the river Ganges.
  • In 2018, Colombia’s Supreme Court recognised the Colombian Amazon as an entity, subject of rights, and beneficiary of “protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration”.
  • In 2019, the High Court of Bangladesh recognised rivers as living entities, legal persons and juristic persons.

There are numerous other examples, relating to all sorts of environmental features, flora and even fauna – all different, but ultimately recognising at their base mankind’s stewardship responsibility in relation to nature.

The New Zealand Experience

In 2013 and 2014, New Zealand took its own steps forward in the area of legal personality for nature. Since the 1990s, New Zealand has pursued Treaty of Waitangi settlements, a national policy of reconciliation between the indigenous Māori people and the Crown (the New Zealand government).

A Treaty settlement seeks to address long-standing Māori grievances stemming from New Zealand’s colonisation and settlement. In each settlement, the government makes a formal apology, provides financial redress and seeks to restore an iwi’s connection to its land through cultural redress.

  • The 2013 settlement with the central North Island iwi Ngāi Tūhoe vested ownership of Tūhoe’s large ancestral homeland, Te Urewera, in itself and recognised the area as a legal person. A joint Tūhoe/government board (with a Tūhoe majority) now provides Te Urewera’s legal voice.
  • The 2014 settlement with Whanganui River iwi, mentioned above, took a similar approach in recognising the New Zealand’s third longest river as a living entity in its own right, incapable of being owned. The River is now represented by Te Pou Tupua, a body established to be the human face of the River and act in its name.

Like many indigenous people around the world, Māori have recognised something akin to personality in nature for hundreds of years. It is the West that is catching up. New Zealand’s recognition of legal personality in natural features has responded to a world-view expressed, for example, by Ngāi Tūhoe this way:

the use of property rights by the western legal system has hidden from view the concept of nature […] The use of property rights to regulate human disputes arising from human society is no longer permissible in and of Te Urewera. Te Urewera may never again be owned by people.

In the Whanganui River settlement, legal personality helped New Zealand’s Western legal system accommodate the iwi’s view of the river as Te Awa Tupua: a living being, an indivisible whole incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements from the mountains to the seas, inseparable from the people connected to it. This world-view is conveyed by the Whanganui pepeha (saying):

E rere kau mai te Awa nui                              The Great River flows

Mai I te Kāhui Maunga ki Tangaroa                 From the Mountains to the Seas

Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au                       I am the River and the River is me

New Zealand’s approach to legal personality differs from many international examples in that the executive has negotiated, and the Parliament legislated, the arrangements: they are not the product of local referenda or imposed by court decisions. More fundamentally, perhaps, New Zealand’s arrangements are unique in the state’s recognition of the aspirations of indigenous people. Legal personality has helped the New Zealand government and Māori get past difficult discussions about Western concepts such as ownership and instead served as a bridge between two fundamentally different traditions of thinking about property and the environment.

The Tūhoe and Whanganui River settlements have achieved significant attention overseas. In 2018, the Whanganui River featured as a key part of US filmmaker Issac Goeckeritz’s documentary, The Rights of Nature, a Global Movement. Among other coverage, the Atlantic made a video setting out what we did with the Whanganui River. National Geographic ran a full-length article, as did the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine. The BBC made a video telling the story for British audiences. Academic literature has now started to examine New Zealand’s approach with Te Urewera and the River.

Domestic Context

Nonetheless, this international attention has not translated into domestic interest. New Zealand’s experiment with legal personality has been described to me by one person as ‘internationally hot, domestically not’. This probably reflects the relaxed nature of New Zealanders to even radical reforms. We have all got used to what former UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd once described as our ‘adventures of policy’ that make keeping an eye on New Zealand essential for anyone interested in politics.

International Implications

To legislators looking to address seemingly intractable problems in their own countries, I suggest there are a number of benefits to New Zealand’s approach which make it of export to other jurisdictions. In addition to bridging the gap between different (even incompatible) world-views within an existing legal system, New Zealand’s approach:

  • allows progress to be made on matters where there is agreement, while transcending issues where there will not be agreement (such as who owns something, and what that means);
  • is capable of being implemented in legislation, rather than being left to the courts to develop over time;
  • allows the exact scope of legal personality to be spelled out clearly, alongside how the legal personality will be represented practically, and for what reasons;
  • grants the natural resource full powers to be involved in environmental management policy development and decision-making;
  • can be customised to fit a range of different situations.

Global Implications

It is difficult to predict the extent to which legal personality may be applied in the future. Need the boundaries of legal personality and the rights of nature stop at national borders? Could the concept be expanded to a supranational or international level? Trans-national environmental problems require an increasingly multilateral approach.

As Attorney-General of New Zealand in 2013, I appeared in the International Court of Justice, intervening on Australia’s case against Japan on its whaling program. Australia and New Zealand had a great victory in that case but, seven years on, whales are dying from ingesting plastic before they even get close to a Japanese ‘scientific research vessel’.

Could the Pacific Ocean, its islands and fauna one day be recognised as having legal rights?

Perhaps it’s an amorphous idea at this point, but a rights of nature approach to the Pacific Ocean could guide more international collaboration. It has already been suggested that rights of nature laws could help save endangered species, such as orca whales.

In 2018, two Canadian lawyers even considered applying the New Zealand legal personality model to the moon, other space resources and space habitats. Whether or not the concept has extra-terrestrial applicability, there is certainly scope for further examination of how the model could operate on an international or supranational level.

It is an even more interesting exercise to consider the application of the rights of nature to a number of intractable international problems, including cross-border disputes over natural resources and contested or occupied land.

The increasing and often radical suggestions of possible usages of legal personality reflect the promise and adaptability of the concept for different situations.

It does not have to be the preserve of one side of politics or the other. While the rights of nature are promoted in many countries by the environmental left, it doesn’t really belong to either side; in fact it is capable of enjoying support from all parts of the political spectrum. In investigating attitudes to the rights of nature movement, Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund found that recognising such rights is also popular in rural, conservative towns.

It is easy to get disheartened by some of the environmental problems confronting us in 2020. But we have two options: get apocalyptic or do something. Looking to expand the rights of nature into new fields could be one solution. It’s an area where the New Zealand experience could help lead the way.

Hon Chris Finlayson was a New Zealand MP from2005 to ’19, serving as Minister of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations and as Attorney-General from 2008 to ’17.  He also had ministerial portfolios for the arts, culture & heritage, and for intelligence services.

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