Forest and Bird Keynote Speech – June 16th
America’s best Idea is commonly regarded and promoted as the establishment of the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone, 140 years ago in 1872. Go there, see how good the Americans are at blending conservation with public participation, education and advocacy
NZ’s first national park, Tongariro was just the 4th national park established in the world. Ngati Tuwharetoa, concerned about expansion of European settlers had the mountains set aside as a reserve by the Native Land Court in 1886 – just 14 years after Yellowstone, & the Tongariro National Park Act was passed in October 1894 – just 22 years after Yellowstone.
I conclude NZ has a conservation legacy that is second to nobody’s.
The question relevant to today though is how do we shape up in the contemporary context, where is conservation now placed in the national agenda insofar as it fits with the future we intend to carve out for ourselves? In particular I’m interested in its transition from a cause for the fringe – say like indigenous rights – to being central to the day-to-day life of all New Zealanders. Let me elaborate.
Over recent decades environmental protection and conservation have oscillated from being of marginal public interest, to headlining when tree sit-ins occur, to being an issue of national pride when NZ’s clean, green image is mentioned by visitors. We are hypocritical on this issue – love taking credit for the image but exhibit high levels of complacency integrating it into our daily lives.
With such variable public interest is it any wonder then that we have a fragmented, ad hoc approach to the subject of environment and its protection and even enhancement? Yes we have a Department of Conservation, and a Ministry for the Environment, and an Environment Protection Agency so nobody can accuse successive governments of not having in place the machinery to give effect to public concern & intent in this space.
But on the political front we still have a Green Party that positions itself to the Left of Labour and refuses to go into coalition with National. What is that about – is this a party concerned with conservation or a Far Left group using conservation as a Trojan Horse for another agenda? Does it still cling to the anachronism that economic growth is not compatible with conservation?
And when it comes to public concern – whether from households or firms – conservation and the environmental issues are “nice to haves” more than they are essentials integrated strongly into our daily lives and the decisions we make every day. Jobs and families are our dominant preoccupations and conservation and environment tend to be only occasional visitors into that space. Recycling bins seem to be our most telling advance.
However change is afoot.
1. As global population growth and economic development carry on interminably the cost of some forms of human expansion are becoming only too clear to those suddenly face to face with the consequences of their actions.
- In Beijing two weeks ago – cyclists there wearing face masks now to protect their lungs; China’s Environment Minister said “In China’s thousands of years of civilisation, the conflict between humanity and nature has never been as serious as it is today”,
- 2 months ago on MacQuarie Island in the Southern Ocean where a survey on marine debris washing up on a beach there that has been running since 1991 shows an exponential growth in proportion of plastic coming ashore – all the way from Asia. Ingestion of plastic is known to be a significant source of bird fatalities in the Southern Ocean.
- Apart from these examples of pollution, the big daddy of environmental impact from human expansion of course is from anthropogenic-induced climate change whose impact is far-reaching in terms of human habitation directly and its impact on ecosystems across the board. Tropical currents moving south, invasive species.
2. And the good news? As people’s wealth rises they become more concerned about their environment and emboldened to do something about it. We witness rises in consumer accreditation of products and manufacturing processes, government direct action & regulation is more commonplace, business acknowledgement that environmentally sustainable production processes are increasingly becoming a competitive advantage.
Overall our response to pollution, conservation, carbon emissions very confused, contradictory – we get some really weird outcomes;
- Over the last 5 years it’s been the US that has had the greatest drop in carbon emissions (450 m tons) brought about by a switch to burning gas (half the carbon emissions) rather than oil. Europe – replete with its Kyoto commitments – has raised its C emissions despite recession, due to the European price of gas going up. US achieved its fall by expanding the practice of fracking – same as Australia is looking at with the gas on its east coast states.
- In NZ price of carbon credits has collapsed as the ETS has been undermined by the 2 for 1 deal where price of an emission is capped at $12.50 in order to reduce the impact of the ETS on consumers. In short a regime was established and then deliberately sabotaged. It’s a mess.
- 95% of the area of NZ is under the sea. The Green Extreme would argue we should not tap the mineral resources in that area. Assuming more oil and gas is discovered then a proper cost/benefit analysis is most unlikely to suggest New Zealanders should deny themselves of this income. In other words the Greenneck response is not an evidence-based one, and consequently will simply alienate mainstream New Zealand. Conservationists must be more sophisticated.
So long as this ad hoc and polarized approached to conservation persists we will have this dichotomy between what should be happening in this space and what is happening. The almighty mess that is the result of
- Waxing and waning public concern
- Policy failure
- Absence of user pays on environmental degradation – local councils, taxpayers too often are left to pay for the clean up
And as a consequence of such fragmentation we have;
1. The ongoing capture of the conservation space by the Green Extreme – the alliance between people who are simply anti-economic development disguised as environmentalists, combining with simple tree-hugging conservationists who have no understanding of cost/benefit analysis of green solutions. This is an alliance of forces that by taking extreme positions, frustrates mainstream solutions being agreed & sometimes we even end up worse off,
- Anti-whaling – Japan ended up taking more
- MPA’s in the Ross Sea Region – NZ proposal is science-backed but allows toothfishing. AOA proposes a larger area which in effect stops it. AOA won’t be agreed to & if NZ isn’t then we get nothing
- If Kiwi consumers actually followed F&B’s “Best Fish Guide” they wouldn’t be able to eat the bulk of the fish available in NZ supermarkets. Prices of those they could would soar, consumption of fish would drop and would no doubt increase consumption of other protein with a greater impact on the environment, like beef and lamb. Marine Stewardship Council, which is recognised as the world’s best certification scheme, accredits the Kiwi hoki, southern blue whiting and Antarctic toothfish fisheries, but Forest and Bird instructs them to “Avoid”
2. polarization of views on conservation – if you’re pro-conservation you’re anti economic growth. This needlessly alienates huge numbers of people from conservation that should be our constituency & not waxing & waning on conservation
To mainstream conservation
- Political parties that champion conservation need to be happy to form coalitions with others. Otherwise they’re rightly seen as just Lefty Loonies
- Conservationists have to recognize when the cost of a conservation policy outweighs the benefit – nothing has infinite value
- We must price environmental degradation directly to those who cause it – on fossil fuels, on waterway pollution, on waste disposal. Yes this will raise the price of these products – corrective taxes are meant to do that. You then use the proceeds to reduce the price of products that come from sustainable processes.
- For example in the EEZ we should charge people who use the oceans resources and use that income to protect some bits absolutely (marine reserves) and monitor the rest against environmental standards to ensure that too much damage is not done
For the sake of securing Considered Conservation as the successor to the Green Extreme, and mainstreaming conservation in NZ requires we marginalize or disown those of the “sit in” mentality together with those of the Far Left using this issue for their own purposes. Considered conservationists need to have the courage now to disown publicly this behavior
Ideologues in any sphere end up doing more harm than good – I saw them in the work we did on climate change and on that occasion they were the climate deniers, I saw them when we did Hook, Line and Blinkers where they were the rootin’, shootin’ tootin’ redneck lobby who regard it as their birthright to take the last fish, and I can see it in this space amongst those whose heritage is environmental activism and left-wing crusades in general.
We need to grow up and mainstream conservation and environmental enhancement. It must be integral to our day-to-day decision-making – using the machinery I have mentioned, which is an extension of the resource rental approach. Only then will integration of conservation into our day-to-day decisions been achieved and tub thumping activism have been relegated to a relic of the past.