• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Serious cargo

One small voyage for a ship, one giant leap for New Zealand.

This month, 125 years ago in 1882, the Dunedin docked at the Port of London with a cargo of meat from New Zealand that sold at double its local price. Refrigeration substantially reduced the cost of distant shipping for fresh foods but, even more dramatically, changed New Zealand: economically, socially, politically and technologically.

For much of the 19th century the (European) New Zealand economy had been a "quarry" from which resources were extracted and exported - seals, whales, native timber, gold, other mine-rals, kauri gum. Once they had been depleted, all that seemed left was a low-density population based on extensive sheep stations exporting wool and tallow - a Falklands of the South Pacific - although canned fruit and meat and exotic timber production were vague possibilities. Refrigeration made poss-ible intensive family farms of crossbred sheep and dairying, plus a larger, and more egalitarian, population.

So social and political life was transformed. Quarries, which deplete and are left behind, have no need for children. By the end of the 19th century, women had become more important in our society because it was now based on sustainability. Our first permanent political party (the Liberals) came into being about the same time: previously politics had been a matter of temporary coalitions.

Our approach to why we lived here changed: retiring prime ministers chose to stay in New Zealand, rather than go back to the "Old Country". Our relationship with the world also changed. It seems likely that without intensive pastoral settlement we would have joined the Australian states in federating in 1901.

The new political economy was to drive New Zealand for at least 85 years, losing its dominance in 1966 when the profitability of sheep farming fell, after the price of wool collapsed. The economy diversified to a wider resource base: energy and minerals, fish, general manufacturing, horticulture, tourism and other services, and wood-based export - while we ceased to depend so much on Britain. Today Australia, the US, Japan and China are bigger export destinations than the UK, while they and Germany are bigger import sources.

But it would be wrong to think of the pastoral transformation as solely the consequence of refrigeration. Modern shipping, then the Panama Canal and cable telegraph and, later, wireless radio also reduced the costs of distance, placing New Zealand producers closer to their markets.

New market opportunities led to innovations in production. In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift famously remarks that "whoever could make ... two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together". He could have added that the development of livestock to harvest the grass more effectively, together with better post-farmgate processing in freezing works and dairy factories, would also be a boon. Perhaps our farm sector has done better than our politicians.

The impact of some technologies can be very dynamic, far beyond what those who introduced them envisaged at the time; they may generate other technologies in quite different areas that impact markedly on a society's way of life.

Which leads me to wonder about the technologies coming at us today. Refrigeration was around for up to 100 years before it reached New Zealand. Similarly with information technology and communications (ICT). Refrigerated shipping was not invented in New Zealand, nor were we the first to apply it - that honour goes to Argentina and Australia. But perhaps no country was more transformed by the technology.

Could that be true for ICT? Another technological change of which we are not aware may yet have an even bigger impact. This column is not a plea for a futurology created in order to make economic forecasting look successful. Rather, it is to remind readers that technological changes can have an impact beyond the comprehension of those introducing them and that we need to be flexible in thought and in the institutions we create to take advantage of them. How many people were on the wharf when the Dunedin left Port Chalmers?