Our fatal flaw - ignoring a lethal threat because it is gradual.

by Andrew Waterworth - Nov 24, 2018

Andrew Waterworth is a former TV producer and senior media manager. Based in Wanaka, he is a regular writer for Crux specialising in issues affecting our region. In this piece he examines the flaws in human nature that encourage all of us to avoid dealing with obvious environmental and social threats, and the potentially catastrophic consequences, just because they are slow in taking shape,

“It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.”  Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk

In one of Eddie Izzard’s classic sketches, he satirises the Church of England in medieval times for being too nice. Instead of torturing unbelievers, the inquisitor offers a choice: Cake or Death. Not surprisingly they choose cake. Why would you choose death?

Yet, despite the IPCC report on global warming and ample evidence that sustainability offers the best chance of survival, we frequently and counter-intuitively choose the path which is likely to lead to death. Why?

Andrew Waterworth2

Wanaka Crux contributor Andrew Waterworth.

Back in the late 1980s when many of us in the media were doing stories on the environment, the ozone hole, climate change and the population explosion, I interviewed biologist, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. I asked him why he thought people were often slow or reluctant to face up to these global issues. He used a simple story, an analogy to explain.  Place a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the temperature and the frog will acclimatise. Not sensing immediate danger, the frog will slowly cook to death. Try and place a frog in a pot of already boiling water and the frog will do everything to escape. The threat to its life is unmistakable and intense.

Whether or not the frog in the pot story is true to life has been debated, but the moral of the story is nonetheless clear. We are less likely to respond to a threat if it’s not immediate. Conversely, we are more likely to respond to clear and present danger.

And that’s a problem for humanity.

How we respond to threat is deeply rooted in our brains and our DNA.  It’s best known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. When confronted with danger, the amygdala, a part of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is a bit like a command centre and triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so it can respond to perceived dangers. 

The ‘fight or flight’ mechanism has generally served us well, especially during the thousands of years we lived as opportunistic hunter/gatherers. There’s no point wasting energy, a valuable commodity, over-reacting to every rustle in the bushes or change in weather.

But if a sabre-toothed cat or woolly mammoth charges at you, or a flash flood threatens your camp, you need to be able to react very quickly if you want to stay alive.

The difficulty for most of us living in a relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous society is that we don’t perceive any immediate threat or danger from global warming or climate change, and so we are lulled into a false sense of security. There’s nothing wrong, so I don’t need to worry or take action to secure my safety. If sea level rises were happening overnight, food resources collapsing so we could no longer buy what we need in the supermarket, petrol prices soaring to $20 a litre, drinking water contaminated or strictly limited so we were having to buy it in bottles at inflated prices – we’d start to worry pretty quickly and think about what action we needed to take to survive. It could all turn ugly very quickly indeed.


Sometimes we can be shaken into action by shocking images such as an ocean full of plastic waste - but usually it's "out of sight, out of mind." Image: BBC

But when the dangers we’re warned of are not immediately apparent, when we’re not affected right now by what scientists say is happening, when the warming of the atmosphere and oceans takes place incrementally in fractions of degrees and the disasters they forecast will impact the globe over decades, it’s hard to react with a sense of urgency.

However, history tells us that we have to override our evolutionary instinct to live opportunistically ‘in the moment’, relying on our ancient ‘fight or flight’ mechanism for survival.

New Scientist magazine published a lead article in January this year (2018) with the alarming headline question:

End of days: Is Western civilisation on the brink of collapse?

History tells us all cultures have their sell-by date. Do political strife, crippling inequality and climate change mean the West’s time is now up?

The article focuses on a number of researchers who have looked back at what caused civilisations in the past to collapse and their data and modelling offer some disturbing conclusions. Here’s an extract that is particularly relevant:

How and why turbulence sometimes turns into collapse is something that concerns Safa Motesharrei, a mathematician at the University of Maryland. He noticed that while, in nature, some prey always survive to keep the cycle going, some societies that collapsed, such as the Maya, the Minoans and the Hittites, never recovered. To find out why, he first modelled human populations as if they were predators and natural resources were prey. Then he split the “predators” into two unequal groups, wealthy elites and less well-off commoners. This showed that either extreme inequality or resource depletion could push a society to collapse, but collapse is irreversible only when the two coincide. “They essentially fuel each other,” says Motesharrei.

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Safa Motesharrei

Part of the reason is that the ‘haves’ are buffered by their wealth from the effects of resource depletion for longer than the “have-nots” and so resist calls for a change of strategy until it is too late. This doesn’t bode well for Western societies, which are dangerously unequal. According to a recent analysis, the world’s richest 1 per cent now owns half the wealth, and the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has been growing since the financial crisis of 2008.  

The West might already be living on borrowed time. Motesharrei’s group has shown that by rapidly using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, a society can grow by an order of magnitude beyond what would have been supported by renewables alone, and so is able to postpone its collapse. “But when the collapse happens,” they concluded, “it is much deeper.”

So, in a world where the wealthy don’t want to change (or see no advantage for them to do so) to more sustainable practices and policies, and the less well-off cannot afford to change, we face the prospect of a downward spiral into social collapse. At the heart of the dilemma is short-termism, a behavioural response that is a product of our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Short-termism is classically opportunistic, fuelled by self-interest, emotion, greed and blind optimism (someone, something will rescue us, sort this out, allow us to survive even if no-one else does).

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Adrian Orr of the Reserve Bank - "I summarise the key plague on economic society as 'short-termism'.

The dangers to our society posed by short-termism were succinctly spelt out by New Zealand’s Reserve Bank governor, Adrian Orr in September this year in his first public speech, reported in the New Zealand Herald:

"I summarise the key plague on economic society as 'short-termism'. This is the overt focus on the next day, week, or reporting cycle," Orr said in a speech to the Financial Services Council in Auckland.

"A short-term focus can be driven by the need to survive from day-to-day. However, it is too often driven by the desire to consume at an unsustainable rate," he said.

"The desire for instant gratification or reward can often leave behind a trail of unintended consequences."

Orr said consequences of short-term thinking could lead to economic growth coming at the expense of a sustainable environment, social cohesion and cultural acceptance.”

That is precisely the dilemma currently facing the Queenstown Lakes District in regards to property development, tourism and population growth. The short-term drivers push us towards growth, expansion and financial gain.

These are held to be essential for prosperity, and an unstoppable force. “You can’t stop growth”, is the stock response to anyone questioning the viability of more houses, more tourists and more pressure on the environment. The critical question though is, is that growth sustainable? Can it keep on going exponentially, can we continue to deplete resources at an ever-greater rate, can we have an increasingly negative impact on the environment, can we afford the infrastructure to support the growth? Can we just keep on consuming without consequences?

Again, history suggests not. Whether it’s the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, Angkor Wat or the kingdom of Mesopotamia, these people eventually ran out natural resources, farmable land or a beneficent climate, with disastrous consequences.

As Jonathon Porritt noted in his Guardian review of evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, Diamond believes that societies choose to fail or survive.

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Jonathon Porritt - societies choose to fail or survive.

According to Porritt, Diamond advances potential explanations as to why we make the wrong choice, why we commit what he calls ‘ecocide’, and how “several of these explanations have direct relevance to our own ecological crisis: a failure to anticipate future consequences; an inability to read trends or see behind the phenomenon of "creeping normalcy", with things getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice; the disproportionate power of detached elites, particularly when they condone or even positively promote what he describes as "rational bad behaviour" on the part of those who manage or use natural resources.”

These are both symptoms and consequences of short-termism; and they echo the warnings of mathematician, Safa Motesharreiabout what causes social collapse.

How do we choose to survive rather than fail? Put another way – how do we choose sustainability rather than the demise or collapse of our society? It shouldn’t be that hard, surely?

That’s where we need to draw on our other evolutionary survival strategy – the social response. An instinctual response may get us out of a tight spot, but a social response can help us avoid it in the first place or help us plan as a group how to manage a potential or emerging crisis.  

An example of social response was the recent ONE Summit Sustainability Festival held across Wanaka and Queenstown in October. The brain child of two women, Arna Craig and Monique Kelly, the festival of events aimed ‘to educate, inspire and enable New Zealand communities to accelerate towards a Carbon Zero future and beyond’. 

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Monique Kelly speaking at a recent Wanaka ONE Sustainability summit

The week-long festival held 16 events, covered topics ranging from why we need to get to zero carbon emissions now, circular economics for business, workshops on integrating sustainability into business practices (eg tourism & hospitality), how and why we need to build better, conscious consumerism (sustainable fashion),  how to invest your money to make a positive impact, zero waste, a beach clean-up, community discussion on sustainability in tourism, and an Eco-Fair which grouped all of the community organisations working on different Sustainable Development Goals together under one roof.

This first-time festival was a major success, selling almost 500 tickets and involving over forty speakers.

It brought people together to be better informed, to be inspired and above all to have the confidence to think and act for their future survival. With our dependence on tourism in New Zealand and especially here in Wanaka and Queenstown, there are issues we need to face urgently. 

In the words of festival organiser, Monique Kelly: ‘The much bigger question is how the Global Climate Crisis is going to affect growth, in particular in an industry that is highly reliant on fossil fuel. We have a major risk that tourism may be viewed by many as the next ‘dairy’ and it risks losing its social licence not only with the host community feeling crowded out, but also with visitors who are increasingly calculating their carbon footprint and will view long distance travel as significantly contributing to this. There is also the possibility that we will be inundated by visitors from the north seeking a relatively "safe", cool destination to escape to.

The big question is how many of these visitors can our environment support? The industry is starting to look at this, with the help of TIA, but there needs to be more awareness around this issue. The GCC will make many of the current pain points redundant as anyone looking at investing in carbon heavy ventures will soon be dissuaded given the economic, social and environmental costs of investing. We need to build up our local industry to be resilient enough to face this new challenge and rethink what zero carbon tourism looks like.’

This is the much-needed opposite of short-termism – we need to be thinking more ahead of the curve if we are to survive. As with any social change, however, it will only happen if there is top-down as well as bottom-up leadership and support.

There are some hopeful – if at times contradictory - signs.

Take Air New Zealand – go to their webpage and you’ll find a link to Sustainability - https://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/sustainability.

Straight away – you’ll see what I mean by ‘contradictory’. Under the word,  ‘Sustainability’, appears the following sub-heading:

Supercharging New Zealand's success - socially, environmentally and economically.

Parsing that statement, we begin with two very positive and powerful words, ‘supercharging’ and ‘success’, those words warmly embracing New Zealand (home, feelings of pride, belonging and ownership). In turn they then qualify the feel-good words, ‘socially, environmentally and economically’. But what does it mean? Can you supercharge social success? Can you supercharge environmental success, especially if you’re at the same time (but after the others, of course) supercharging economic success? It sounds great but how on earth does that work?

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Air New Zealand - can "supercharging and success" live alongside NZ social and environmental values?

Feeling somewhat confused, you read on. After the inevitable corporate section about how Air New Zealand has shaped the country’s growth, success and prosperity, there are three links, one to Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Framework, one to its 2018 Sustainability Report and one to its Advisory Panel. Here’s where it gets interesting.

The Sustainability Framework sets out in a chart the sustainability challenges under various headings. Let’s home in on Tourism since that is particularly relevant to our region. Here’s what it has to say:


New Zealand is at risk of losing value from a growing tourism market, due to infrastructure underinvestment, degrading natural environments, and workforce limitations, which in some cases is leading to negative community sentiment towards tourism.


Sustainability is at the heart of New Zealand’s tourism value proposition, ensuring that New Zealand’s 100% Pure brand position is fully aligned with national sustainability performance.

2030 goals

Air New Zealand has played a pivotal role in the New Zealand tourism sector delivering economic prosperity while enhancing natural and cultural resources, and providing outstanding experiences for visitors and New Zealanders alike.

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The Air New Zealand sponsored Queenstown Marathon - trying to marry commercial and environmental values in one package.

So, this is where the Airbus and campervan tyres hit the tarmacadam. Sustainable here means we can’t sell New Zealand to tourists if we overload the infrastructure, stuff up the countryside, lie about looking after our environment, upset the locals and the tourists wind up having a bad experience. That’s not sustainable because eventually the tourists will get jack of that and stay away and the locals will say ‘good riddance’.

Makes sense.

Let’s look at another heading – the whopping great elephant in the room for tourism and travel, CARBON.

This is what Air New Zealand has to say about carbon and sustainability:


The world must hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels by peaking global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, or face a potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.


Global aviation contributes at least 2% of global emissions, and rising. New Zealand transitions to an ultra-low carbon economy, on a pathway consistent with the world achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

2030 goals

Air New Zealand has stabilised emissions through carbon neutral growth post 2020, in a way that simultaneously drives significant environmental, social and economic benefits.

Well, you can’t be much blunter than that, particularly the bit that says, ‘or face a potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.’

That’s the death option in Cake or Death.

How exactly Air New Zealand will achieve the goal of ‘stabilised emissions through carbon neutral growth’, is of course the 64 billion dollar question.

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Air New Zealand - trying to match growth with sustainability.

To find out you have to go to the next link, another chart. Here are the key sections relating to CARBON and Climate Change, with Air NZ measuring its goals of sustainability against those of the UN:

UN Sustainable Development Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Air NZ:  Carbon: Pursue opportunities for aviation bio fuel solution, Electric vehicle transition

UN Sustainable Development Goal 12:  Ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns

Air NZ:  Carbon: Waste and plastics; Electricity reduction Tourism: Sustainable tourism; Trade and Enterprise: Sustainable procurement.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Air NZ: Communities: Disaster relief; Carbon: Aviation carbon reduction; Nature and Science: Antarctica New Zealand Partnership

UN Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources

Air NZ:  Nature and Science: DOC Partnership (marine reserves); Antarctica New Zealand Partnership; Environmental compliance.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 15: Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss

Air NZ:  Air New Zealanders: Employee Greenteam; Nature and Science: DOC Partnership; Environmental compliance

On the one hand, it does look and sound a lot like a ‘tick-the-box’ corporate chart loaded with aspirational ideas and phrases. But – and it’s a significant BUT, it demonstrates three very important things:

  1. Air New Zealand have not got their heads in the sand; they’re not being delusional about climate change; they are confronting the reality that ‘Global aviation contributes at least 2% of global emissions’, and they have to figure out how to address that major problem. If they don’t – they will die, certainly financially and quite possibly, literally.
  2. They are looking beyond the short-term, beyond the immediate business cycles to long-term scenarios and challenges and how they can stay ahead of the curve
  3. They are adopting a social group response

That’s a positive start and it gives Air New Zealand’s customers and shareholders (that’s us Kiwis) the opportunity and the right to hold them accountable.

At a personal and practical level, Air New Zealand offers customers the opportunity to offset their carbon use with credits. A tonne of carbon can be offset by a carbon credit which represents one tonne of carbon (or equivalent

greenhouse gas) emissions reduced or removed from the atmosphere. One option is to pay a percentage of your fare towards a tree planting operation managed by a company called Permanent Forests NZ.

In the past year, customers have offset over 130,000 journeys, up from close to 40,000 the previous year, although that is still under five percent of all customer journeys.

One suggestion I have for Air New Zealand is that customers be allowed to convert their airports to carbon credits, an idea that may be under consideration.

So, keep a watch on Air New Zealand’s Sustainability policies and let them know what you think. If you want to drill down further, you can find out about their Sustainability Advisory Panel, headed by none other than Sir Jonathan Porritt, Founder Director, Forum for the Future UK, here:


and in the Sustainability Report, here:


Dr Susanne Becken

Dr Susanne Becken

That’s where you can read an illuminating interview with Sustainability Advisory Panellist, Dr Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism, Director of Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia and a globally recognised expert in the field of sustainable tourism, in particular climate change and resource management.

One answer resonates strongly in regard to the current debate about the threat of ‘overtourism’ in the Queenstown Lakes District. Asked, “What are the challenges and opportunities presented by sustainable tourism for regional centres’, Dr Becken responded: ‘It is essential to understand what types of tourism and how much of it a region wants – but the community must be part of it, something that has not necessarily been considered in the past. To achieve this requires consultation as well as robust data on carrying capacity and resource limits.”

Sounds eminently logical and sensible. Let’s hope our council, tourism and business leaders are paying attention to what Dr Becken and New Zealand’s national carrier and principal transporter of tourist passengers to our region say about sustainability.

Chris Roberts Oct 2017

TIA Chief Executive Chris Roberts.

They are not alone, by the way. Early November, Tourism Industry Aotearoa held a Tourism Summit in Wellington attended by 300 industry leaders and stakeholders. Headlining the summit was TIA’s announcement of their growing focus on sustainability. TIA Chief Executive Chris Roberts unveiled the draft update of the industry’s growth framework, Tourism 2025 & Beyond, saying, “Our industry has a growing focus on sustainability in its broadest sense, including economic, environmental, host community and visitor sustainability. This was recognised with the release a year ago of the New

Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment, which more than 600 tourism businesses have now signed up to.”TIA’s goals are ambitious: to see every New Zealand tourism business committed to sustainability by 2025, joining TIA’s vision to be ‘Leading the World in Sustainable Tourism’.

Like Air New Zealand (a member of TIA), TIA’s membership is facing a huge challenge: how to grow business, be profitable but at the same time be sustainable. On the one hand their aim is to grow the tourism industry by $5 billion from its current $36 billion to $41 billion by 2025.

On the other hand, they are committed to managing that growth sustainably through 14 commitments across four industry goals, 4 pillars underpinning the overall policy:

  • Economic
  • Visitor
  • Host Community
  • Environment

While the value of visitors has grown significantly and at a faster rate than visitor numbers, TIA Chief Executive Chris Roberts acknowledges that two long-standing industry priorities have proved more difficult to make progress on: seasonality and regional dispersal – when visitors travel and where they go. In the tourist hotspots of Queenstown and Wanaka, we’ll be watching progress on those efforts very closely.

But in the meantime, credit and kudos must go to the TIA and its members – as they face the future, reject short-termism and pursue a social response approach to managing growth.

The challenge for our region is, can we get behind that? There is no choice really between Cake or Death. We can have our cake and eat it, if we live, work and grow sustainably. We’d be mad to choose ‘Death’, wouldn’t we?


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