Kevin Hague

Environmental conference season highlights clash of values

by Kevin Hague

Just grabbing a few days’ rest after a full-on three weeks in Parliament, including yet another week of pointless urgency. The weekends have kept me busy too, but much more constructively. I’m not only talking about the great Invercargill march against the Government’s mining plans, but also a whole series of important environmental conferences. The Environmental Defence Society, Federated Mountain Clubs, Forest and Bird and ECO (the umbrella group for environmental and conservation organisations) have all just had their annual gatherings. As the Green Party’s conservation spokesperson (and sport and recreation) it’s been my pleasure to attend them all. In some respects I see one of our roles as the Green Party in Parliament to represent the values and worldview of the environment and conservation movement in decision-making, so I was only half-joking when I responded to someone’s query about why I was at one of the conferences when I wasn’t a scheduled speaker by saying I was there to get my instructions.

In some ways it has been great to have a time for some reflection after attending all four in rapid succession, as it has given me the opportunity to draw out some common threads. There was a myriad of issues discussed, and this itself was one common theme. The Government we have now is not a traditional National Government that largely muddles along, trying to hold on to power by not rocking the boat too much. While that’s the picture they have tried to create, with Mr. Key’s state of permanent relaxation, this is cover for a radical agenda of change. In the Prime Ministerial statement at the beginning of this year he devoted a section to the environment, entitled “Unlocking Resources”. In this he referred to his government’s intention to mine in Schedule 4 land regardless of the public consultation process and echoed the line from Irrigation NZ that any drop of water reaching the sea is wasted, in foreshadowing his intent to remove “obstacles” to using more water in Canterbury.

The speech was widely – and correctly – interpreted to be a greeen light to the miners, loggers, dammers, dairy converters and supermarket and subdivision builders: under this Government the natural environment is not something that is treasured for its own inherent value, but is rather a set of resources from which to squeeze maximum short-term profit. I call it John Key’s war on the environment. Its results have been to activate people on both sides of this clash of values. We environmentalists are recruiting new members and rallying the old ones, while dusting off (and sometimes relearning) old skills around organising protest strategy and tactics. On the other side of the fence people with dollar signs in their eyes are taking their “implements of destruction” out of the cupboard. At one conference an organiser was heard to give Gerry Brownlee thanks for re-activating the environment movement. To a point that’s true – record numbers of submissions, petition signatures and people demonstrating in the streets. But it’s also very much a gauntlet thrown down: we face multiple fresh threats across a wide range of issues and everywhere in the country (land and sea), and a government friendly to those threats. We need to be strategic and disciplined in our defence of the environment or we risk being spread too thinly and not lasting the distance.

Part of the trick of doing this is to engage directly with the central issue: New Zealanders love our natural environment and our treasured places for their inherent value. Our relationship with the bush, mountains, rivers and lakes, the tussock landscapes of the McKenzie Basin, coast and undersea worlds is as much a spiritual and emotional one as it is physical. These inherent values have no place in John Key’s worldview, but most New Zealanders understand the need to protect and restore these places for what they are or can be again, and that these values are not measured by the short-sighted commercial calculus of extractive industry. Yes, it’s important to also make the arguments about the shonky numbers Brownlee has advanced to justify mining National Parks and the irreparable damage such plans will cause to our international trading brand. Yes, it’s also important to point out the biological reality of our interdependence with the natural world and the dire consequences to us from its destruction. But it’s still more important to evoke the love New Zealanders have for our natural world, and to call on them to protect it for its own sake and for our grandchildren’s.

Time to make the economy serve our environmental and social goals, not the other way around.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Kevin Hague on Wed, July 7th, 2010   

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