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"For all our exaltations, we keep on trashing the place," Al Morrison said in a speech at Canterbury's Lincoln University last night.
New Zealanders -- along with the rest of the world -- were "gambling with nature's tolerance" and after 37 years of "living beyond its means", the effects were catching up with problems emerging over issues such as water supply and quality.
"Nature's systems are finite and we are using them to a point that there is a supply and demand problem. And we are exacerbating the problem by mismanaging and destroying the ecosystems that we rely on to supply those critical services."
While technical solutions such as storage dams and flood protection would help for a while, "at our current rate of biodiversity destruction, something is going to give at some point".
Mr Morrison challenged the business sector to step up and take up the opportunities offered by a global consumer trends towards green products, and work with New Zealand's "rich natural capital" which so attracted tourists.
Consumer trends had tripled sales of organic food and drink globally and quadrupled sustainable forest products, while Cadbury's in New Zealand had been forced to stop using palm oil by a consumer backlash.
The business sector needed to turn from their "old, exploitative ways", to find the market advantage in being nature-friendly.
"A business sector that understands that conservation is good for business, and business is good for conservation," Mr Morrison said.
He challenged critics of DOC's decision to seek business sponsorship, to find a "realistic alternative route to financing the conservation work that needs to be done on a scale that cannot realistically be achieved by taxpayers alone".
The public sector needed to be a "player" in wealth creation, as in the tourism industry. Tourists came here to see the natural landscape, and were the "obvious link between conservation and economy".
But New Zealand was going "backwards" and its approach to the environment needed to change. "The status quo is not an option".
Our "clean and green and 100 percent pure" image was not due to any deliberate effort, but as we had relatively little time and few people to mark the land "we are as guilty as any part of depleting and degrading our natural capital".
New Zealand was not alone, he said. Despite 2010 being the United Nations' year of biodiversity, loss was continuing and, in some cases, accelerating, Mr Morrison.