Edited highlights of the discussion recorded at Otago Museum in association with its exhibition James Cameron – Challenging the Deep
We're looking at changing the way we live in our world. Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins became New Zealand's first Green Party mayor in the 2019 local body elections.
And beside him is another agent of change – the world-renowned filmmaker and explorer James Cameron. The Otago Museum is currently showing his Challenging the Deep the exhibition you'll be able to see upstairs, built around the story of his explorations. Of late all of his work has come to converge around his environmentalism, whether it's film-making and engineering, or farming and investments in the plant-based food industry.
Aaron, I want to start with you because Dunedin City Council voted to declare a climate emergency back earlier this year in June, around the same time as Pope Francis actually.
We're not often mentioned in the same sentence! I think the climate emergency movement, in New Zealand at least, has made the connection between the urgency of the situation we find ourselves and the critical role that local government has to play in getting us where we need to go. And we've seen that internationally, whether that's Michael Bloomberg's Compact of Mayors group or the state of California, just getting on with it, because we can't wait for a United Nations agreement to get us get us out of this.
And so, we had a very active group around the country, and particularly in Dunedin, who were pushing for us to make that declaration as an acknowledgement that we need to do more and faster. But I think the degree of political support we got for declaring a climate emergency and setting ourselves a target of being a zero-carbon city by 2030 is solely at the feet of the school strikes movement. It became impossible to ignore thousands of young people marching on the streets demanding that we do more. It's embarrassing that it took that, but it was the first step along that path.
This is an emotional issue, isn't it, James?
Well, it's a deeply emotional issue if we care about our children, or if we are children facing an anxious future. We are facing probably the biggest existential challenge to human civilization and we are collectively responsible for the for the solutions. As a father of five I, I take it as my sacred responsibility to be doing as much as I can. And I can only hope that there are enough like-minded people out there that populate the major corporations, that right now seem to be working largely to exert pressure on national governments to not change the status quo.
Because we're not changing the way we do business, the way we consume, the way we eat, the way we produce energy, fast enough to really make a big difference in the long run. But what's really encouraging for me as a resident of New Zealand (who spends about half my year here between here in California) is when I was shooting in Wellington, recently, I read the Dominion Post every day for about 90 days. It was during that period of the acceptance of the idea, the nomenclature, of the climate crisis.
And it was in stark contrast to the media that I was getting from the US where the President is going about the process of extricating the US from the Paris accords. Everything in that country is going in the wrong direction now, because they just handed the reins of power to the special interest groups: the oil, big food and Big Pharma lobbyists. The pantheon of demons.
I know that there's a lot of contention here. But at least here we're having the dialogue, we're doing things. A good friend of mine happens to be Arnold Schwarzenegger who is the governor of California, and even though he was a Republican and very pro-business, he believed that the future lay in green energy and in solar. He also believed in state, regional and city governments taking an active role, breaking through the log-jam that's taking place at the national level.
Aaron, you said a declaration is meaningless unless it's accompanied by some sort of action. Can you talk about some of the challenges of getting to carbon-zero in Dunedin?
There are different levels. There are things that we have direct control over: our transport network is one of the biggest opportunities we have in terms of reducing our carbon footprint. There's waste management. There's stuff that you can do around the efficiency of buildings and supporting insulation of buildings, and reducing the loss of energy that way. But a lot of what we do is to actively advocate on behalf of our community to central government to get us to where we need to get to.
I think you have to set yourself a goal and have the will to do it. And the first step for that is for us as a community and society to be in agreement that this is something that has to happen. And then we'll find the will to make the changes that we have to make. And we're going to have to make them personally. To actually make lifestyle changes in terms of how you drive, what you eat, and so on. That's where you have to have the motivation and there has to be a consensus.
So I want to bring up an unpopular subject, which is that the elephant in the room in all of this in New Zealand is a cow. And it goes like this: 50% of the greenhouse forcing created here is from the animal agriculture sector. The low-hanging fruit of change that exists for other countries' electric grid doesn't exist here, because we're already mostly on hydro. The global average for animal agriculture contributing to climate change is about 14% or 15%. Here, it's 50%. And it's a sector that represents 4% of the GDP. So there's a huge imbalance there.
So it's going to have to change and I think we all know it, but the farming community is highly resistant to it. I was raised on a farm. I'm a farmer here. We're going to have to change what we grow and how we consume and how we eat.
One of the biggest things we're facing is the missing middle. We've gone directly from denial - it's too far away in time, it's happening to other people, other places don't matter to me. We've missed the middle, the battle, where you actually take on the challenge and do something. We've instead gone right to "We're all screwed, we're all gonna die, let's just party." And we've skipped the middle step. Now, I like challenges. Let's fix this.
People from the other side of that argument will say that New Zealand farmers are some of the most efficient in the world. And there is an argument, as you know, that if they are to step out of the sector, inefficiency could increase.
I've heard that argument, but methane is one of the biggest things that we have to wrangle in this country. And the irony of it is that the concentrated feedlot operations in the US and Europe are actually more efficient than free-range grazing by a factor of two. People are really sticking their heads in the sand. I want to really emphasize how sympathetic I am to farmers. I have farms in Canada. I have a farm here. The purpose of those farms is to figure out how to do it better. All farmers really want to do is just make some money off their land, so they can keep their family farm, and pride of place. For a lot of Kiwi farmers, it's generational. They inherited the land, and they believe in it.
And that's a really important part of the national consciousness, isn't it? The idea of kaitiakitanga, of long-term guardianship.
Well, yes, but ultra-long term guardianship requires understanding what you're doing now and its impact on future generations. And the jury is not out on this. The rivers are being polluted. You have eutrophication caused by runoff of nitrate phosphate fertilizers. If you ask any farmer what their primary crop is, they'll tell it's maybe it's milk solids or whatever. But their crop in that case would be grass, right? To be dairy farmers, they're grass farmers first.
But the point is, because about 51% to 55% of the nutrient topdressing that they put on runs out into the waterways, goes into the lakes and rivers and winds up in the ocean, their primary crop is algae. And so we need more efficient agronomy to hold on to that nutrient because that's where your margin is, as a farmer
You need to be practising organic methods to retain nutrients and retain moisture. In Canterbury they're going to be running out of water. What I wanted to do personally was actually get my hands dirty and understand how these things work. And by the way, some of them don't work as well as they're advertised. And a lot of these organic processes don't work as well in certain areas. You've got to let the land tell you how it wants to be farmed. But we also have to talk about what we eat and changing our consumption, which will then create market drivers for what farmers are growing.
It's not a fringe issue any more to talk about climate change and climate action . And I'm conscious that climate change isn't the only environmental issue that we're facing, but it is the one that a territorial authority has the most control over, But there is also an ecological crisis and biodiversity crisis which need equal attention, and they lose a lot of bandwidth to climate change as the as the key issue.
That question of bandwidth. How much can we absorb, cope with, deal with? The question of what we eat hits us where we live.
There's an interesting thing my wife Suzy Amis Cameron prepared for a book that that she wrote. It was a Venn diagram and she took all the major ecological crises of the world - biodiversity, deforestation, ocean, dead zones, waterway pollution - and so on. Where they all overlap is in agriculture in general, but mostly in animal agriculture. And it turns out to be a kind of magic wand solution to just stop eating animals.
If the developing world comes up to consumption levels of New Zealand and the United States, we would need somewhere in the order of four to six planet Earths to support our current population. If we all ate like somebody in India right now who lives mostly on plants, on lentils, then we could support a population on this planet of 15 billion people.
So there's a huge kind of social injustice factor. It's like "We can live this way but you can't and you never can." We have to change a meet in the middle someplace so that everyone can have a reasonable lifestyle.
But look at the cultural, historical, and emotional attachment to meat. In cultures outside of New Zealand's, you have emergent middle classes in Indonesia, and massive economies who do have that connection to meat eating. Surely it's a question of self-determination for them to whether they want to change?
It's considered a sign of affluence in China to be able to afford meat. But it's really taking the world in the wrong direction. Ultimately in my mind it's a land use issue. The use of land can be anywhere from 10 to 40 times more efficient in feeding people, if they eat plants versus that which eats plants. Because every time you go up a trophic level, you lose efficiency.
So if you eat if you eat something, that eats something, you're going up one trophic level. In the ocean, when you have tuna, you're eating right at the top of the of the of the food chain. That's up about four four or five trophic levels from the primary producers which are algae. So the closer you get to the soil and the more directly you take your food out of the ground, the more efficient you become. It's ultimately an efficiency thing. How do we get the most efficiency out of the land that we utilise for agriculture and therefore stop taking more land from rain forests in Brazil and so on to feed that addiction?
One of the things I like about your wife's book is it's about changing one meal.
My wife Suzy wrote a book called OMD One Meal A Day for the Planet. And it came out of her being an educator and founding our own Green School. And she came to me one day after we had gone vegan primarily for environmental reasons. And said, "We're teaching the kids about about sustainability and individual responsibility, but they're eating burgers and pizza at lunch." She said we have to go plant based and will teach the kids to grow their own food, which they did.
They put in 170 raised beds and the kids grow their own food and eat it. And cafeteria at the school was recently voted the greenest restaurant in the world. It beat out all the farm to table restaurants in Chicago and New York. So, you know, she proved your point, but half the parents left. And a whole bunch came in from other states to be to be a part of it. So it all worked out.
But what she found was that in educating the parents so that they felt safe and comfortable about it, she said, "Guys, it's just one meal a day. You can have a double cheeseburger for breakfast if you want. But when you're here, you have to walk the walk because it has to be consistent with what's being taught."
And so from that she realised, that's the best way to ask people to make changes. In small steps, with something that they can act on immediately. Then once you're doing it and you're starting to realise, "Hey, that tastes pretty good," it just starts to become easier and easier, and then you can build from there.
Last weekend at an event in Wellington, a well-known commentator said, “Nobody cares that New Zealand passed a zero carbon bill. It's a compromise. It's a tiny country at the bottom of the world, it doesn't matter.”
I think that's a cop-out answer. The countries that have the same roughly profile as us to get to about 25% of the global problem, and that's significant. We also have a moral obligation to be doing things, particularly with Pacific friends and neighbours literally drowning as a result of inaction and inertia. I think for that reason alone, we need to be more ambitious than the framework currently is. But to say that it makes no difference is unhelpful and untrue. If you get a quarter of those responsible for the world's carbon footprint opting out because they consider themselves as being too small to matter, then we're never going to get to where we need to get to.
I think the world does pay attention to New Zealand, disproportionate to its population and its GDP. From Edmund to the All Blacks to the racing boats. People look to New Zealand as both a forward-thinking green nation and a nation of independent and rational people.
About the speakers
James Cameron (born August 16, 1954) is a Canadian filmmaker and environmentalist, who is best known for making science fiction and epic films for the Hollywood mainstream.
Cameron first gained recognition for directing The Terminator (1984). He found further critical and commercial success with Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and True Lies (1994). His greatest big-budget productions have been Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), the former earning him Academy Awards in Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing. Avatar, filmed in 3D technology, also garnered him nominations in the same categories.
He also co-founded Lightstorm Entertainment, Digital Domain and Earthship Productions. In addition to his filmmaking, he is a National Geographic explorer of the sea and has produced a number of documentaries on the subject. Cameron contributed to underwater filming and remote vehicle technologies and helped create the digital 3D Fusion Camera System. In 2012, Cameron became the first person to perform a solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth's ocean, in the Deepsea Challenger submersible.
In total, Cameron's films have grossed approximately US$2 billion in North America and US$6 billion worldwide. Cameron's Avatar and Titanic are the second and third highest-grossing films of all time, earning $2.78 billion and $2.19 billion, respectively. Cameron holds the achievement of having directed the first two of the five films in history to gross over $2 billion worldwide. In 2010,Time magazine named Cameron one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Aaron Hawkins is the mayor of Dunedin City. He was elected in this role on 12 October 2019. He is a representative of the Green Party.
Hawkins was born in Invercargill but has lived in Dunedin since 2002 to study at the University of Otago. He lives in Port Chalmers with his wife and son. He is a vegetarian.
Hawkins first stood for Council and Mayor in the 2010 local body election but was unsuccessful.
He stood for re-election to Council and for the mayoralty in 2019 as a representative of the Green Party. He was successful in the mayoral poll and was the first official Green Party candidate to win a mayoralty.
As of September 2019, he is the chair of council's community and culture committee, grants committee, refugee steering group and the Mayor's taskforce for housing. He is also a member of the Dunedin Fringe Arts Trust board and the Blue Oyster Arts Trust board and the co-chair of Local Government New Zealand's young elected members committee.
In association with the Otago Museum, and the exhibition James Cameron Challenging the Deep which runs until 9 February 2020.