Who's trampling on our environmental standards? The
fingers seems to be pointed fairly and squarely at the
Government, writes Neville Peat.
A large foreign trawler operating in New Zealand's
subantarctic waters. Photo by Neville Peat.
The bottom appears to have fallen out of the
environmental bottom line.
Ten years ago, the corporate world was being encouraged to
add ''environment'' to company annual reporting and talk
about initiatives to do with sustainability and biodiversity
Triple bottom line accounting - financial/economic, social
It was trendy.
It felt good then; not so good now. Economy and ecology are
connected big ideas out of the same etymological stable. But
at times of economic constraint - like this year - you don't
hear much about that other ''eco'' word.
For a country that boasts ''Clean, Green'' and ''100% Pure''
spin in overseas promotion, you would think ecology and the
environment would be agenda-toppers. But no. Lip-service is
about as good as it gets. Natural capital has not looked so
vulnerable in decades.
Natural capital - clean water and air, and healthy soil - is
the basis of ecology. The environment will not rate with any
priority for people who see themselves as separate from the
natural world; but it is certainly as important as the
economy. The next generation will not thank us for trampling
on it, for degrading or reducing resources and limiting
options for sustainability.
To drive economic indicators in supposedly the right
direction, the Government is going flat out to increase
extraction, from inshore oil to offshore fish to any mineral
worth an export dollar. Just about everywhere you look in the
environmental public policy arena, the present Government is
sounding an ideological retreat from sustainability. And to
disguise what it is doing, the Beehive has ordered the
Ministry for the Environment to abandon the five-yearly State
of the Environment round-up report, our 100% Pure reality
At the same time, resource management legislation is going
soft. The Government seems to want to irrigate till the cows
come home, never mind instream or aquifer ill-effects.
Government action on climate change - what climate change
would that be, and why should we worry? - is backtracking to
the point where carbon polluters are unlikely to be called to
account in the near future.
New Zealand, on climate change and other environmental
issues, was once a mover and shaker among the so-called
developed nations. At this month's Qatar talks, we sat on our
At home, the latest round of radical restructuring going on
at the Department of Conservation is creating massive
uncertainty. It looks like Doc's world-leading expertise in
nature conservation will be required to pay its own way
through private-sector sponsorship, or pack up.
Among the OECD block of nations, New Zealand is an oceanic
standout. Sea dominates. We should be a world leader in
marine science, reliably assessing and protecting fish
stocks, looking for ways to combat acidification, bending
over backwards to protect seabirds and marine mammals from
fishing effects, and working out what to do with the several
thousand New Zealand nationals who live on South Pacific
atolls (Tokelau and the Cook Islands) threatened by sea-level
rise. It's coming.
Instead, we dish out permits to overseas companies to look
for deep-sea oil in our waters. Instead, we permit trawlers
with nets up to 160m long to fish the squid stocks in the
feeding grounds of the ''nationally critical'' New Zealand
sea lion; a fishing regime based on a discredited if not
shoddy scientific model. Then there is the Ross Sea affair.
It's the Antarctic, why should we care?
At a recent conference of the international agency overseeing
fisheries sustainability below latitude 60deg south, there
was a whiff of progress towards protecting the world's
least-polluted, least-fished large stretch of ocean, 2000km
directly south of New Zealand. But New Zealand, at one time a
champion of nurturing the high seas (saving whales, opposing
drift nets and so on), was in two minds, prevaricating over
whether to collaborate with the United States on a joint
proposal to protect the Ross Sea.
A prized fishery was at stake: Antarctic cod (toothfish).
Reluctantly it seemed, we came around to the idea of partial
protection of the Ross Sea, and this joint proposal with the
United States will be presented again to the 25-member
Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living
Resources in Germany next July. At least two countries,
Russia and China are hotly opposed to any Ross Sea marine
protected area and they are likely to lead a veto lobby
against the proposal.
They want to fish everywhere, target anything of commercial
value; a view that suggests no place on the blue planet is
worth keeping pristine, not even the so-called ''Last
Ocean'', the Ross Sea. Will the meeting in Germany become a
standoff between eco-centric and anthropocentric values?
The latter represents the self-interest gene, which triggers
unmitigated greed. The meeting could be one of humanity's
last opportunities to demonstrate respect for global natural
capital, for keeping a good-sized sea free from extraction.
Meanwhile, at home, Government decisions are rolled out
undermining the environment.
The really sad fact is, from industrial emissions to
Antarctic cod and many natural indicators in between, we are
no nearer the sustainability goal, no nearer even to finding
ways of measuring progress.
The environmental component of triple bottom line accounting
- Neville Peat is a Dunedin writer on geography,
natural history and the environment, and a former Otago