It ain’t necessarily so

Back in the day, when our mortgage shackled us to the grindstone and retirement seemed like an impossible dream, I worked a while for The Organisation.  The boss made it his life’s work to big us up, forever flouncing around on the national stage, giving it large, telling everyone who’d listen – and those who wouldn’t, too, given half a chance – that The Organisation had it nailed, and led where the rest could only follow.

And guess what, everyone believed him.  Many’s the time we’d be at a conference when some poor star-struck soul would sidle up to one of us and whisper “Gee, you must so proud to work for The Organisation.  I mean, like, they’re so far ahead of the field.  If only my miserable little organisation could be as good as The Organisation.”  We lapped it up of course, thought we were the dog’s bollocks.   Only we weren’t.

It took a while for me to work it out, but the truth was that it was all puff and wind, that The Organisation was little better than average.  A veritable curate’s egg, good in some parts but mediocre in others.  Only in one thing did The Organisation truly excel, and that was in the management of its public image. 

I recount this story from my career in the 1990s only because, like The Organisation, New Zealand may be flattering to deceive.

New Zealand’s image is of a pristine land at the other end of the world, safely distant from the environmental woes that blight our own miserable existence.  According to this view the country is a natural paradise, all jagged peaks and imposing glaciers and raging rivers, a landscape stuffed full of charismatic wildlife and exotic vegetation.  Reflecting this utopian image, since 1999 the marketing guys at Tourism New Zealand having been running a campaign they call 100% Pure New Zealand. 

But it ain’t necessarily so.

In April 2019, a story in the Guardian told the world that “a report on the state of New Zealand’s environment has painted a bleak picture of catastrophic biodiversity loss, polluted waterways and the destructive rise of the dairy industry and urban sprawl.”

The report in question is “Environment Aotearoa 2019.”  It’s an impressive but sobering document which presents “nine priority environmental issues for us as a nation in 2019.” The priority themes identified in the report are as follows:

  1. “Our native plants, animals, and ecosystems are under threat.  Our unique native biodiversity is under significant pressure from introduced species, pollution, physical changes to our landscapes and coast, harvesting of wild species, and other factors. Almost 4,000 of our native species are currently threatened with or at risk of extinction.
  2. Changes to the vegetation on our land are degrading the soil and water.  Logging native forests, draining wetlands, and clearing land have degraded a range of benefits provided by native vegetation, accelerated our naturally high rates of soil loss, and affected our waterways.
  3. Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity.  Growth of urban centres has led to land fragmentation and threatens the limited supply of versatile land near Auckland and other regional centres.
  4. Our waterways are polluted in farming areas.  Waterways in farming areas are polluted by excess nutrients, pathogens, and sediment. This threatens our freshwater ecosystems and cultural values, and may make our water unsafe for drinking and recreation.
  5. Our environment is polluted in urban areas.  Some of our cities and towns have polluted air, land, and water. This comes from home heating, vehicle use, industry, and disposal of waste, wastewater, and stormwater. Pollution affects ecosystems, health, and use of nature.
  6. Taking water changes flows which affects our freshwater ecosystems.  Using freshwater for hydroelectric generation, irrigation, domestic, and other purposes changes the water flows in rivers and aquifers. This affects freshwater ecosystems and the ways we relate to and use our waterways.
  7. The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment.  Harvesting marine species affects the health of the marine environment and its social, cultural, and economic value to us. Fishing could change the relationship that future generations have with the sea and how they use its resources.
  8. New Zealand has high greenhouse gas emissions per person.  Our per-person rate of greenhouse gas emissions is one of the highest for an industrialised country. Most of our emissions in 2016 came from livestock and road transport.
  9. Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand.  Changes to our climate are already being felt in our land, freshwater, and marine environments. We can expect further wide-ranging consequences for our culture, economy, infrastructure, coasts, and native species.”

So, there we are, “100% Pure New Zealand” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  No surprises there, I suppose.  I’ve never yet met a marketing man who didn’t gloss over inconvenient truths, so why should Kiwis be any different? 

It is to New Zealand’s credit that it has done the research and gone public with a report that so compellingly undermines the country’s own self-image and international brand.  But the real test will be whether the report will lead to positive actions that tackle the issues it raises.  I’m an old cynic and so have my doubts, but I look forward to being proved wrong.