The public is ready for environmental change. Now we need a lead from politicians

Scientists talk of “tipping points”, the point at which the environment changes from one stable state to another, often abruptly, causing significant disruption. I believe New Zealand may be on the cusp of a tipping point – not in the state of its environment, but rather in terms of people’s awareness of the gravity of the environmental issues we face.

Despite our much-vaunted (but somewhat tarnished) “clean, green” image, we face some major environmental challenges. Many of our indigenous species of animals and plants remain under serious threat in spite of efforts to control pests and halt the decline of indigenous habitat. Many of our waterways and aquifers are under severe pressure from pollutant-laden discharges and increased extraction for irrigation.

New Zealand’s response to climate change to date has been characterised either by inaction (the “wait and see” approach) or potentially effective measures (such as the emissions trading scheme) considerably weakened by the meddling of subsequent governments.

But in the past few years, chinks of light have been starting to penetrate through the stubborn reluctance of successive governments to risk political power for the sake of the environment. Partly this is generational – the new leadership of both main parties are in their 30s and 40s, representing a generation that is less inclined to see environment as subservient to the economy.

But there has also been a growing public realisation that values that we hold dear, such as the ability to swim at our local swimming spot, or to drink water from the tap without falling ill, are in jeopardy. There is also a growing recognition of the inherent unfairness of ordinary people shouldering the burden of environmental degradation (whether it be the cost of remediation of degraded environments or the reduced ability to enjoy the environment) while others profit from the exploitation of “public goods”, such as fresh water.

Nevertheless, as a recently colonised nation, the pioneering mentality remains strong, where private property rights and personal freedoms predominate over values such as the collective good or social licence. (By way of contrast, in Japan, the subject of much of my previous research, rice farmers were traditionally compelled to co-operate with each other to guarantee an equitable and ongoing share of the limited freshwater resource, so vital to wet-rice agriculture.)

In Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand, I trace the history of environmental politics since the nationwide campaign of 1969 to stop the government from raising the level of one of our most spectacular lakes. Since then, environmental governance has progressed markedly. Whereas 50 years ago, there was no government body dedicated to environmental policy, there are now three agencies with major responsibilities in this area. And there is a body of law relating to environmental decision-making and governance, central to which is the Resource Management Act, hailed internationally as ground-breaking at the time of its enactment. Scientific knowledge, public awareness, and the public’s ability to participate in environmental decision-making have also grown exponentially.

But at the same time, environmental issues have grown significantly more complex – making them vulnerable to obfuscation, as was so patently seen in the government proposal in 2017 to make 90 per cent of rivers and lakes “swimmable” by 2040. Confusion reigned in the wake of the announcement, and it was finally admitted that the threshold against which “swimmability” was being measured had been lowered.

The signs of a growing impetus for meaningful change to address our most pressing environmental issues are tentative, but nevertheless offer hope. Earlier this year, National Party leader Simon Bridges announced that his party would support the Government’s proposal to establish an independent climate commission (albeit with some caveats). If Bridges honours this promise, it will be a rare example of bipartisan support for environmental policy.

The Government has also announced that it intends to introduce tougher regulations on agricultural land use to curb water pollution. This triggered the usual objections that stricter regulation is not required because farmers are doing good things like planting trees along streams, though these were more muted and less emphatic than in the past. And from being an obscure, “greenie issue” a year or two ago, the concern about the proliferation of plastic waste (particularly its effect on our oceans) is becoming mainstream, with the Government’s plan to ban single-use plastic bags greeted with widespread acceptance.

To make inroads into our most pressing environmental challenges, the Government not only needs to capitalise on newly emerged public concern, but also take up the mantle of leadership and not be afraid to lead public opinion through awareness-raising initiatives encouraging us all to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of our everyday activities and decisions.

My hope is that a future historian will be able to reflect back on this period, and identify it as a watershed era in terms of environmental awareness and action –  a “tipping point” in environmental history, much like the Save Manapouri Campaign was half a century ago.

By Catherine Knight. This article appeared first on Stuff on 18 September 2018.

Dr Catherine Knight is an environmental historian and author of Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics (Canterbury University Press, 2018), New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history (CUP) and Ravaged Beauty: An environmental history of the Manawatu (Dunmore Press). She works as a policy and communications consultant and lives on a farmlet in rural Manawatū.

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