Friday, 18 July 2014

Opening Our Eyes

Threatened Birthright: If our children are to enjoy the rights their parents enjoyed in New Zealand's rivers and streams we must open our eyes to the damage already done and the damage threatened by the commercial exploitation of this country's waterways.\
 
IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN YESTERDAY, so vivid is the memory. The river was called the Waianakarua. Fresh and clean it tumbled out of the Kakanui Mountains, flowing powerfully through the narrow defile which the district’s Scottish settlers called Glencoe. As it curled and twisted around the great boulders that clogged and blocked the valley, the river collected itself into deep pools. It was into one of these that I leaped as a boy and for the first time in my life opened my eyes underwater. So pure and clean were the waters of the Waianakarua that I could see every pebble. The wonder of it has never left me.
 
Until a few years ago it never occurred to me that the magic of such moments was anything other than the birthright of all New Zealanders. These islands were so large and we Kiwis so few that the possibility that New Zealand’s rivers and streams could ever be anything other than pure and clean seemed fanciful. The marketing expert who came up with “100% Pure New Zealand” clearly felt the same.
 
Humanity’s response to the idea that somewhere, far away at the bottom of the world, there is a place where rivers and streams still tumble pure and clean out of snow-capped mountains has been dramatic. The tourist dollar is now a crucial contributor to New Zealand’s economic well-being. The purity and cleanliness of our waterways now possess much, much more than mere aesthetic value.
 
Indeed, the world’s impression of New Zealand as “clean and green” offers us a perceptual springboard from which we could construct a new and very exciting “green” economy. The world hungers for reassurance that the havoc human-beings have wrought upon the natural environment can be repaired and that it is possible to tread so lightly upon the planet that the wonders they experienced as children will still be there for their grandchildren.
 
The exports from such a green economy would command a huge premium in world markets. The sheer prestige value of products bearing the Made in New Zealand “brand” (think “Swiss watches”, “French wines”) could make this one of the richest countries on Earth.
 
None of this is new. Since the late-1950s, when Bill Sutch offered the Second Labour Government his vision of a richly diverse, highly-skilled, value-added and self-sustaining New Zealand economy, it has been obvious to all patriotic Kiwis what needs to be done.
 
That it hasn’t been done is attributable almost entirely to that wealthy minority of New Zealanders who control our primary production sector, and around whom have gathered a parasitic coterie of importers, retailers and real-estate speculators. These people have always set our nation’s course. The original colonisers. Harvesters of forests. Diggers of mines. Farmers of sheep and cattle. Rip-in, rip-out and rip-off has always been their creed and New Zealand is merely the last in a long line of ravaged and ruined lands they have fallen upon. They remain among us only because there is still some ruin to work here. When the pillaging is complete they will move on.
 
We have reached the point, however, where the nitrate and phosphate pollution these pillaging cockies are pumping into their farmland is overwhelming the environment’s capacity to neutralise it. Milk powder, the latest example of their extractive mania, has given rise to dairy herds whose weight upon the land is now so great that our rivers and streams are rapidly becoming toxic ditches in which no responsible parent would allow a little boy to swim.
 
If you doubt this, just consider the new management policy the polluters’ political representatives have set for our waterways. The quality of the water must be such that merely by wading in it New Zealanders can be confident of avoiding illness. But rivers and streams that they can swim in? No, no! That’s too much to expect. Too much to ask for.
 
It is time all New Zealanders opened their eyes. But, please, not underwater!
 
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 July 2014.

14 comments:

Ennui said...

Lovely post Chris: I have spent whole summers for the last forty years trout fishing, and witnessed the slow erosive degradation of whole river systems from "modern agricultural practices".

I do console myself that with time things will improve, but here is the rub. It will be the end of cheap petrochemical production that forces the change.

Imagine if the cost of high energy inputs changed just a little. Nitrates, phosphates, lime, etc need to be dug, refined, transported, spread, all require huge energy inputs. Then add the trucking off milk....the energy to pump water etc. Even if the energy is hydro electricity there will be competitors for that energy pushing the costs up. And dairying as we know it is more a spreadsheet exercise with marginal numbers than it is "farming".

Oil production worldwide has peaked, portable alternatives are not yet on the horizon, and certainly not in the quantities and in the price range that will sustain the economies of industrial dairying on marginal (for cows) land. I don't need to predict that this industry will crash, it is so blindingly obvious. There is yet hope for our rivers.

Anonymous said...

My thirty something kids all had the pleasure of swimming in pristine rivers; but at least one of them, when visited a couple of years ago was not even fit for a dog to drink, warning signs on the banks.

heather said...

A great post, thank you. your 'Rip-in, rip-out and rip-off' is brilliant! i too swam in those pristine rivers in north otago, i also recall opening my eyes and can still remember the smell of the water and the colour of the stones.that it doesn't look like my grandchildren will be able to makes me furious.

Anonymous said...

Poignant reminder of my own childhood beside the Opihi River in South Canterbury.In the 1950s could swim and drink the water.
But as the book Empire by Niall Ferguson reminds us,our ancestors and the pioneers of this Country cut out a living by exploiting what resources they could.
The problem is that this type of exploitive behavoir is still alive and well when a new sustainable non exploitive way of dealing with the Earths resourses should be the norm.
We need farming but surely we can do it without destroying our Lakes and Rivers
Jerry Walton

Jigsaw said...

I agree that there is a problem but your post ignores many of the really positive things that are happening in the environment at the moment and many of them are gaining ground in leaps and bounds. If you haven't noticed then you really are out of touch. This area has more trees and plantings that ever before and the evidence is in old photos which show the gains that have been made. Many farmers take pride in the environmental work that they do on their farms. New innovations in farming like wintering sheds will make a huge difference. Part of the answer to the poor farmers lie with Fonterra who are the ones who can apply real pressure. People like Ennui seem to want to return to the farmimg of the middle ages.

Ennui said...

Jigsaw. You miss the point completely with the medieval comment. Want has nothing to do with it. Energy and resource availability constraints do. Do you think the much lower input model of forty years ago "medieval"?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I never swam, but I used to drink the water :-). But not so long ago my sister called a case of giardia from drinking river water. Jigsaw, you are ignoring more than Chris is. The explosive and aggressive development of dairy farming in this country is basically ruining rivers, sorry.

"There's none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know’

Debbie Sullivan said...

Ennui...the basic premise of your argument I believe is sound ...except for one thing. When that dense energy becomes harder to source who do you think might get first and preferential bite at the diminishing cherry?

Victor said...

Spot on, Chris

We simply have to rid ourselves of the mental dichotomy between apparently "idealist" environmentalism and the allegedly "realistic" over-exploitation of our natural resources.

The only economic strategy that makes sense, medium to long term, is trading off our "clean 'n green" reputation. And we can only trade off that reputation if it reflects reality.

And(for once)optimising economic advantage actually involves adopting policies that are good for us in all kinds of non-economic ways.

Meanwhile, don't imagine that we have an indefinite future as a dairy supplier to China. As its consumers climb up the value chain, we'll face stiff competition from the Danes, Dutch and Irish.

May I add that the type of overseas customers most likely to be impressed by our environmental credentials (and consequently unimpressed by our failure to live up to them) are also likely to be deeply unimpressed by our poverty statistics, our record on domestic violence and our tardiness in reforming our animal welfare codes.

Everyone wants to believe in Shangri-la. But everyone, these days, is also part of the global village. So we better start getting our act together.

ShanghaiSue said...

Chris, you have given me an `aha' moment with this post. I realise now where my love of our natural environment comes from, by a river flowing off Mt Taranaki. Smelling its freshness and purity as a child and looking into its clean waters.

I believe there is still hope for NZ with the right leadership. China where I live has no hope left

I would love to share this to my FB page but cannot see how to do this. Can you advise me?

jh said...

At least we have our (gasp) DIVERSITY.

Ennui said...

Good question. I don't think that will matter long term because the hydrocarbons will get used up so not be available. In the short term any raised input costs will threaten the balance sheets. Given debt loadings with hihly capital intensive farming that is far more immediate.

darkhorse said...

A lovely post Chris but it is interesting to note ennui's comment - which is wonderfully enlightening as to the strange state of denial we all live in. He comments how much he loves catching trout (a love which I share) but fails to see that his pursuit is no less harmful to our native fresh water ecology as the actions of the farmers he berates - indeed in many south island streams the native fresh water ecology is more intact on the grass choked fenced off streams on dairy farms (plenty of science to support this observation) than in the free flowing brooks were trout predation dominates. Trout have collectively done a vast amount of harm to our native fresh water species - the Koaro wasn't nearly wiped out by just by farming and land clearance trout were aare a primary predator. Fishermen have also spread didymo through the rivers I loved so much and lagrosiphon throught the dark brown waters of the west coast lakes that I fished many devcades ago.

We also seem to have no problems collectively living off the proceeds of farming. For every ten dollrs each of us spends on some import from tv to petrol, a cow has had to stand in a paddock all day to earn that money. Without dairying our nation would be in a dire situation as we otherwise produce so little that is exported that we could not afford our collective and rather indulgent lifestyle.

So do not mean to rain on the parade and concur fully with your sentiments but we are all guitly and we need to be thinking in terms of answers based on a clear definition of the problem - not on narrow prejudice

Anonymous said...

The most polluted river in North Otago is the Kakanui which has nothing to do with farmers. It has everything to do with a flock of protected gulls defecating in the water. Waianakarua river is still clean. Farmers are now governed by ORC plan change 6A which measures water quality going in and out of individual farms so that should fix problems where they occur.