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A think tank report on sustainability, released in Wellington today, calls for a radical overhaul of economic and environmental policies and practices to avoid a "catastrophic" future for the country.
The paper put together by Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand (SANZ) presents a range of "optimistic" scenarios, but warns that mistaken decisions and delays could lead to confusion and hardship in New Zealand.
Poor decision-making could also mean New Zealand contributed to the "collapse and destruction of human civilisation as we know it, together with much of nature".
"New Zealand is currently very far from being sustainable and does not have policies and practices that can achieve sustainability," the report said.
The paper was produced with the support of the local arm of UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and the Tindall Foundation.
The paper noted New Zealand could not be completely sustainable because its climate and oceans would be damaged by other nation's contributions to global warming, but it must do all it could domestically and seek the support of "like-minded" nations.
"The alternative, of delaying action until New Zealand can follow the lead of other countries, would make the adjustment process more difficult and costly, as well as contributing to a global apathy that would greatly increase the risk of catastrophic outcomes," the report said.
"It is an opportunity for New Zealand to demonstrate innovative leadership." The country's present approach to sustainability was fundamentally flawed, the report said.
A new pathway to sustainability would be "unpleasant, painful and sometimes chaotic" but also stimulating for the people who grasp the challenges.
SANZ said the paper was being released to encourage New Zealanders to comprehend the "truly huge changes" and to make a commitment to those changes.
Evidence offered for the nation's unsustainable economy and lifestyles included its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, industrial pollution, loss of species and biodiversity, waste, and toxic dumps and a reduction in the vitality of human communities.
Other evidence cited included nitrate, phosphate, and organic contamination of waterways and groundwater, degradation of soils through farming practices; erosion of hill country and worsening flooding of lowlands.
The existing approach of "triple bottom line" economic development adopted by many companies -- accounting for environmental and social costs alongside financial costs -- was discounted as aimed at doing no more than some good.
Instead, the nation needed increased use of renewable energy, changes to land-use, food production and manufacturing and a renewed focus on local communities.
The paper called for a "new economics" with market mechanisms to maximise community wellbeing and the happiness of individuals "within the limits of ecological principles". This would require major shifts in human behaviour, and reforms in political structures and institutions, which the paper argued should be adopted even if many other countries have not done the same.