Musings from a Second World Country

Although it rarely makes the nightly news, the global sustainability movement is a growing influence in the lives of the educated middle class in most industrialized countries. Millions of people world wide accept that they face a less energy intensive future (whether due to a shrinking global economy, fossil fuel depletion or international treaties to reduce carbon emissions). Which means millions of people are already making conscious lifestyle choices to reduce their energy and carbon footprint.

I am wondering if a self-described “second world” country like New Zealand might possibly offer a useful perspective on this worldwide “greening” of consumerism. The terminology first, second and third world was originally coined during the Cold War to designated capitalist countries aligned with the US (first world), communist countries aligned with the USSR (second world), and countries aligned with neither (third world). More recently, however, the terms first and third world are used to describe economic status, as opposed to political alignment.

A New Definition for Second World

The expression “second world” has definitely taken on a new meaning in New Zealand – especially since the IMF came knocking at our door last week. I wonder if this might also be the case in Iceland, Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal – other countries facing unsustainable debt levels as they struggle to keep vital public programs going.

I have often heard New Zealand referred to as second world, mainly by new immigrants from Europe, South Africa and North America. As evidence of New Zealand’s second world status, they cite the fact that Kiwis wear thermal underwear, down vests and mufflers to work in the winter (owing to ambient indoor temperatures of 60-63 degrees F  – energy is already extremely expensive here); that most professional women feel guilty using a close dryer and still hang their washing on the line; and that Do It Yourself and jury-rigging with duct tape and Number 8 wire are a matter of national pride and summoning a repairman is seen as an unmanly extravagance.

A Latecomer to Globalization

It’s a historical fact that New Zealand was a latecomer to globalization and the pressure this produced to become an export-driven economy. Prior to the disastrous “structural adjustment” New Zealand underwent in 1984 (see http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/01/26/in-new-zealand-they-call-it-rogernomics/), Kiwis got along just fine without the billions of dollars of cheap Asian imports that dominate our retail shelves at present. In fact women of my own generation talk of growing their own fruit, veggies and chooks (chickens) in their backyard when their children were young, as well as canning surplus fruit and veggies for winter, sewing their children’s clothes, knitting their jumpers (sweaters) and saving and recycling string, rags, scrap metal and any other household waste that could be used for some other purpose. It is intriguing to watch many of them fall back on these deeply engrained habits, as they make conscious choices to reduce their energy and carbon footprint.

New Zealand also has the advantage of having a mainly agricultural economy and a slower rate of urbanization than other industrialized countries. At present 55.6% percent of Kiwis live in New Zealand’s 12 cities, as opposed to an average 75% urbanization rate for other industrialized countries. Thus making it relatively easy for at least half of New Zealanders to undertake concrete local energy conservation, alternative transport and waste reduction initiatives, as well as creating community gardens, farmers markets and community supported agriculture schemes.


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