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Diversity versus the economy - Has our environmental credit card has reached its limit?

By Julia Stuart

We New Zealanders are going to have to change our values and reflect those new values our politics if we are going to stay clean, green and pleasant. This was the stark message Department of Conservation director general Al Morrison delivered to the Methodist School of Theology in Palmerston North last month.

“What confronts New Zealanders is the price of generations of unsustainable wealth creation,” Al said in his wide-ranging address Conservation – A Question of Values.

“The environmental credit card has reached its limits. Its debt is our inheritance. Nature will not write it off.

“But there is no guarantee that we, as a society, have the political will to pay it off. That will require a change in our value set.

“We do know there is a tipping point. Societies through history have sown the seeds of their own demise through bad environmental management. We are on course to mirror the demise of the Easter Islanders, who tried to maintain over-population by exploiting their resources unsustainably, then placing faith in the gods to save them from their environmental degradation.”

Spirituality in a Secular World was the theme of the Central and Southern North Island Synods’ 2007 annual School. Apart from Al Morrison (who was previously political editor for National

The cost of saving the carnivorous land snail Powelliphanta annectans is the lost sales of seven shipments of export coal from the Stockton coal mine.
Radio), speakers included Andrew Pritchard of Spiritual Growth Ministries, and Sande Ramage, chaplain of Rathkeale College in Masterton.

Contrasting society values are well shown by the debate over the relative merits of native snails and coal on the West Coast’s Stockton Plateau, Al said. “In the worst-case scenario, the cost of saving the unique carnivorous land snail Powelliphanta annectans is the lost sales of seven shipments of export coal, calculated at $25 million, plus the $10 million to capture and move the snails.”

Al also explored New Zealand’s conservation history since colonization and the growth of social sensitivity to environmental issues. At the same time as the ‘noble work’ of bush-felling opened up the land for agricultural production, early tourism was beginning to show the value of scenery, he said. Economic values have always been paramount, however.

“The driving conservation values were utility, beauty and the protection of curiosities that attracted tourists, and these prevailed through into the 1960s.”

Famous conservation battles such as Save Lake Manapouri, and the defeat of the proposal to build an aluminium smelter at Aramoana on the Otago Peninsula showed that the public mind was changing, however, and the 1987 Conservation Act set out a new value base.

”The centrepiece of the Act is the intrinsic value of nature,” he said. “The Department of Conservation must advocate, and manage for the value of nature for its own sake.

“Cultural value is also expressed in the requirement to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi – a much stronger direction than simply ‘having regard to’. The other is sustainability. The Department must manage the natural and historic resources under its care in a way that ensures future generations benefit equally from it.”

So, what do the snails in the way of the Stockton Mine have to do with all this? A critical factor is public perception – if it were saving the kiwi instead, Al doubted there would be an issue.

“Kiwis conform to our value set. They are cute, good looking, noticeable, soft and cuddly, provide tangible benefits and are therefore worthy of protection. They are among the deserving species. Snails are not.

“This is not sound conservation principle. It is a popularity contest.”

Biodiversity is a critical factor in maintaining a healthy environment, according to Al Morrison.

“I’m not suggesting that if the snail is sacrificed to maximize the profits from mining it will mean the end of civilization as we know it. But I am suggesting there is a risk in a value set that determines that 593 rather than 600 shipments of coal over 20 years is too high a price to pay.

“Nobody knows how far we can push living at war with the natural environment that sustains us. It’s hard to imagine it depends on a few snails. But then, Easter Islanders apparently thought the same about trees, and that value set eventually created the conditions that destroyed their society and killed them.”

The audience of 50 that gathered to hear this session included a number of farmers and at least two former residents of the West Coast. This led to a lively discussion session following Al’s paper. Questions ranged from the benefits of tourism and the environmental impact of dairying to the effect of felling forests and Treaty settlements.

“The risk is not seeing the bigger picture,” Al said. “We must validate the New Zealand brand of 100% Pure through managing the environment, implementing the biodiversity strategy, and setting sustainability goals.

“We’re not there yet.”