Monday, February 26, 2024

Lessons from the hard year that was 2023

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Daniel Eb predicts that last year embodied the sort of upheaval we will have to learn to live with.
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I was shooting clays recently. There were five traps firing. From four of these, the clay followed a simple, consistent trajectory – left to right, high to low or near to far. But the fifth did something strange. It fired almost directly upwards, hung for a moment and fell awkwardly back to earth. 

Compared with the others, there was just more to it. Acceleration and deceleration. A weird gravity-defying pause that demanded a different type of patience and timing from the shooter. In corporate speak, you would call it “dynamic”.  

That clay feels like a good metaphor for the year we’ve had. 

After years of lockdowns and economic instability, I think we all wanted something normal from 2023. We looked forward to a normal summer, normal markets, normal politics, normal interest rates, normal workloads, normal grocery prices and normal news. We wanted a go at one of the ordinary targets for a change.

Instead, we got the wettest first half of the year on record and Cyclone Gabrielle, successive interest rate rises, a divisive election season, shock foreign wars and a little recession to top it off. 

For thousands of Kiwis, this was the year the house was lost in a flood, the farm was overwhelmed, debt became scary, redundancy loomed or the visits to the foodbank became too regular. 

That’s not to say there weren’t wins and moments of pride among the setbacks. We saw communities and the nation come together in the face of disaster. Political power was transferred peacefully after a fair, clean election (an increasing rarity globally). We continued to slowly turn the corner on several key national indicators like ram raids, emergency housing gaps, public transport use and even child poverty. 

Like the rise, pause and fall of that clay, 2023 was complex and hard to read. It felt weird, messy and full of contradictions. Climate change is a good example. We suffered back-to-back extreme weather events that upended the lives of thousands of New Zealanders and kick-started serious and hopeful discussions about our response to climate change. 

Half a year later, climate action was conspicuously absent from the election campaign. In the same year that our quarterly greenhouse gas emissions finally fell, a new government is halting a raft of climate action policies with no replacements in sight. 

Drilling down further into agricultural emissions, who can say what trajectory we find ourselves on now? We started the year expecting something, anything, to come from the unprecedented sector collaboration that was He Waka Eke Noa, only for it to fall over almost entirely. 

Fonterra’s long-awaited Scope 3 emissions plan was released, alongside increasingly strong signals from global customers for deep reductions on the farm. At the same time, the new government has punted farm emissions and other environmental regulations down the road. We continue to invest heavily in long foretold technological breakthroughs to fix an issue that new science suggests might not be that big of an issue after all.  

In a more personal example of 2023’s contradictions, I spent time experimenting with ChatGPT, the new artificial intelligence platform capable of writing passable responses on any topic you ask it, and on a course for values- and vision-based communication. Which is it? Will AI do my copywriting for me or do I need to keep studying the art of empathetic storytelling? 

If there is a lesson to be learnt from 2023, it’s that contradiction, false starts, crisis and upheaval are our new reality. The normal years are gone and they’re not coming back.

So how do we adapt to a future full of years like 2023? I can only speak for my own experience, but I think the crux of it is accepting that the mega forces that will impact my family’s life are increasingly chaotic. I need to get comfortable with the fact that economic growth, social cohesion, a stable environment, affordable groceries or a need for my skill set aren’t actually guaranteed anymore. 

Because I’m expecting more instability, not less, my focus for 2024 is twofold. First up is building my capacity to weather chaotic times by focusing on personal health, family wellbeing, a lower energy and consumption lifestyle and swapping social media doomscrolling for more real learning (aka books). 

Secondly, I want to do more work that builds our collective capacity to keep going despite the upheavals and challenges we find ourselves in. For me, that work looks like food security, ecological and farming education for our young people and supporting regenerative farming systems.

In the end, hitting that chaotic clay came down to two things – recognising that the old strategy wasn’t going to work anymore, and slowing down to get the basics right. 

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