Are We Boiling Frogs?

Environmental pressures have been steadily accumulating. Are we aware of them? Are we responding?

It is claimed that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then slowly brought to a boil, it will not see the danger and will be cooked to death. Apparently the research contradicts the proposition for frogs; I am less sure it is as sanguine for humans.

You have probably never heard of Raroa Road which winds down a Wellington hill from Karori to the Aro Valley. I have been using it regularly. I would not have noticed that the traffic has been steadily increasing except that I count the cars which pass me and over the last half-dozen years; their numbers have increased on average by at least 50 percent. Additionally the road is, in effect, narrower from more cars parked on its side and today’s cars are wider, so drivers are more often held up by oncoming traffic.

It would have been easy to illustrate the same problem with traffic on motorways, but I have chosen an obscure road to illustrate that increasing the congestion is much more widespread. It is not easy to think of a way of increasing the traffic capacity of Raroa Road,, for the hillside is steep and the road is narrow. Nor is there an obvious alternative route except through the already clogged inner Wellington basin.

Had I chosen a motorway, some would have come back with a proposal for more lanes or a second route or a tunnel or something. Others argue for technological tweaks like driverless cars (which can run closer together and might reduce street parking), or better traffic signalling or whatever. They may slow down the rate of the heating but ultimately the water will boil. (‘Not in my lifetime’, do I hear you say?)

It is not just transport. Had you told me in my youth that the beaches and rivers I swam in would be unusable fifty years later because of pollution, I would have been uncomprehending. I did not know then that sea levels were already steadily rising; they are likely to rise faster in the next fifty years and there will be more storm surges. Plastic bags were not invented then, the possibilities that parts of the sea will soon be clogged with them would have been ‘far out, man’. (Did we use that term then?) Oh, there would be plenty of water. Sure, droughts (especially on the east coasts) were regular then too, but the supply from runoff and aquifers seemed unlimited.

One could go on but these illustrations are enough. In a whole series of areas the tepid waters of our childhood have been steadily warming. We have often delayed the boil but the awful truth is we cannot do so indefinitely.

Between 2008 and 2017, GDP – a measure of economic activity – rose 46 percent in nominal terms (i.e. growth and prices). The Treasury reports that the value of state highways rose 23 percent – roughly half the rate. (Raroa Road is not a state highway.) The precise comparison is tricky, and has not been done, but allowing for the caveats (which go in both directions) the implication is that either, at one extreme, the productivity of the roading system grew more than double the overall GDP performance, or at the other, the roads are getting increasingly jammed.

Yet the Key-English Government (especially Stephen Joyce) is very proud of its achievements in building roads. (In fairness many of the roading programs were initiated by the Clark-Cullen Government or earlier, just as the Ardern-Peters Government will build roads started before them.) Yet their program did not keep up with the pace of economic activity. It was not because of the meanness of the government. The state roading program is funded out of levies paid by road users (such as petrol tax); it is they who have been mean – to themselves.

So should the frog jump? Or rather, where can it jump to? That is not a popular question; answering it is even harder. I am not saying we should not continue to seek technological tweaks and add to invested capital (including public transport). But it only (expensively) puts off the troubling day. Given our lifestyles and locations, I doubt we can  markedly reduce the number of trips we do. The water warms.

Should we slow down population growth? I have long supported zero population growth for the world (knowing that ZPG is easier said than done). But I saw part of the deal as New Zealand taking migrants from more population-pressed countries.

I certainly do not resile from our responsibilities towards refugees, but I wonder whether we should aim for net ZMG - zero migrant growth. We would have to take seriously providing the workforce skills for our own people instead of relying on other countries to provide them. It would involve some industries – such as real estate, tourism and the training of overseas students – not being so prosperous. I worry that the more limited diversity would mean a less vibrant society.

I am not sure. Earlier posts suggested we should be restraining net immigration in the short term because of housing shortages and the like. But this one is asking whether we should be restraining it in the long term. This post is an invitation to others to have a serious (non-xenophobic) discussion on our long-term population strategy. I shall listen with interest.

Oh! If research says the frogs do not get boiled alive, it is yet to rule out that they die from pollutants or being choked by plastic bags.

PS No actual frogs were hurt in the making of this column.