When you spend a lot of time driving along roads in New Zealand, as I have recently, you tend to get a lot of time to think. My thoughts to begin with were around the massive earthquake that hit Christchurch on our first day in the country, but after that I started to consider other kinds of seismic shifts that are perhaps slower moving.

Our host on the first day remarked to us that there was a debate in the country about the price of milk – the “white gold”. Apparently Kiwis pay a lot for their milk and no-one can really understand why: it is thought that there are too many middlemen in the supply chain. The fact that milk is expensive is surprising because New Zealand produces a lot: there is a lot of space per head of population and the farmland is largely productive. Now I’m no expert on dairy farming but where I come from in the south-west of the UK there is a lot of it and my impressions were that Kiwis tend to farm more intensively (more animals per square metre of land) and I saw a lot of animals moving about jammed into trucks. This is big business. What Kiwis seem to have less of is supermarket price wars: I only saw two major supermarket chains and – perhaps – the lack of competition is keeping the price higher than it would in the UK. I sense that a shift will occur here: as consumers get better informed the middlemen will be squeezed out but farmers may also have pressure put on their margins and they will resort to more co-operatives, such as happens a bit here.

The second thing I noticed was the variation in the price of petrol around the country. We visited a lot of remote areas and obviously transport costs mean that petrol is more expensive in these places. What slowly started to sink in, though, was the extent to which oil was the primary means by which communities were connected. I’ve done a bit of work with people who are concerned about bridging the digital divide in rural communities, and I can report that mobile signal is non-existent in many parts of the country: it is roads that connect communities in these places and the extent to which the entire economy is built on oil slowly started to dawn on me. Of course, New Zealand isn’t unique in this – it’s a truism to say that the world economy is built on the stuff. If peak oil theorists are onto anything at all, however, this can only mean that everything is going to get much more expensive in the future. And this is the second seismic shift: economies will be successful only to the extent that they can wean themselves off the black gold. We always think about our cars and energy when we think about this, but oil is everywhere in every part of our economies, and it will not be an easy task.

New Zealand is blessed with awesome landscapes – but you can’t eat scenery and it won’t go into your car’s fuel tank either. Its abundant fisheries, mineral and energy (hydro and geothermal) resources and fertile land give it everything it needs to succeed, but without oil no-one will visit and the resources will lie unused.

Having driven a few thousand kilometres around these beautiful islands, I’m increasingly convinced that I’m now part of the problem: we used up gallons of petrol (UK equivalent average price: £1:10 a litre of standard unleaded) and I don’t see a sustained effort to replace this resource anywhere with something better. I should do something about it.

I’m just not sure what.

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