A chance for scrutiny missed, Tom Brooking

Land and Water: Water and Soil Conservation and Central Government in New Zealand 1941-1988
Michael Roche
Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, $24.95,
ISBN 0 477 05691 1

Visiting American academics are intrigued by the over-confident manner with which New Zealand agricultural scientists approach problem-solving. They attribute our environmental innocence (or is it misplaced arrogance?) to the fact that we have not yet experienced the traumas of a dust bowl (although the combined efforts of rabbits and the Spanish weed, Hyraceum, are threatening such a catastrophe in the Mackenzie basin). Furthermore, few New Zealand farmers have had to wrestle with the problems of aridity. Summer campers may curse our abundant rainfall but only small parts of the country have to wrestle with the vagaries of dry land farming and the costs and difficulties of irrigation. As a result, New Zealanders still tend to believe that problems can be solved quickly and simply when many other cultures realise that solving one problem creates at least two new ones.

Michael Roche’s book on soil and water conservation in New Zealand suggests that our ongoing naivete in relation to environmental problems has resulted in part from the success of agricultural scientists and state bureaucracy in holding the soil and limiting flooding. Scientists like Norman Taylor, Doug Campbell, Lance McCaskill and Kevin O’Connor, the charismatic geographer Kenneth Cumberland and the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Council which they helped to establish in 1941 in response to major floods in 1938, managed to hold enough soil and to keep water sufficiently clean and under sufficient control to be deemed successful. Roche credits the success of both individuals and institutional structures to their ability to apply deep theoretical knowledge in very practical ways and to promote their cause with enthusiasm. These scientists were effective propagandists as well as fine scholars of a somewhat philosophical bent. The problem is that they were too successful and stopped us developing a more hard-headed attitude towards confronting environmental problems which have resulted from a century and a-half of abuse of both land and water resources.

Roche attempts to tell this interesting tale in orthodox chronological fashion. Solid research and a workmanlike text are supported by many useful maps and diagrams and interesting illustrations, including posters devised to promote soil and water conservation. Unfortunately, despite a promising beginning which sets the story in the broader context of New Zealand environmental history, the author soon loses the plot as he bogs in institutional detail. I found the endless acronyms attached to various government agencies totally confusing. The frequent listing of recommendations of apparently endless government commissions is also irritating. Things really pick only when the author gets to the big changes of the 1980s with which he is clearly unhappy. It is a pity that he doesn’t spell out these concerns more fully because he has the deep knowledge of the history of forestry and environmental change to make some interesting criticisms. As a result the book is too uncritical of the approaches adopted by both the old and the new order and avoids addressing many of the big questions raised by this important part of state activity.

The basic problem is structural. Instead of employing a chronological approach tracing through each disparate part of a complex story Roche should have compared the performance of each system. Obviously he is better placed to assess and criticise the old order but he could still have spelt out more fully his concerns about the future management of our soil and water resources. He fails to realise that he is describing two different New Zealands: the old statist one and the new entrepreneurial one produced by the Rogernomics revolution. In other words he needed a little more history in the mix and a little less geography and institutional detail.

When I first went to Massey in 1969 New Zealand was still run by agricultural scientists and farmers. Vets had almost as much kudos as doctors and agricultural scientist held far higher status than lawyers, accountants or businessmen. Our heroes were people like Dr “Freddy” Dry of the Drysdale sheep, “Pig” McMeekan and McCaskill rather than stockbrokers, corporate kings and captains of industry. This almost exclusively male elite ran the government as well as the agricultural college Massey then was despite the fact that New Zealand was becoming an increasingly urban society.

James K Baxter journeyed down from Jerusalem to condemn even us lowly arts students as “lackeys” of this “technocracy”. Norm Kirk and the Labour Party, along with the new Values Party, questioned the faith of this order in pastoral farming to maintain our affluence. Despite this somewhat muted protest the country continued to be run as a rural/small town society into the 1970s. Even Britain’s awkward entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 and an oil shock in 1973 failed to produce significant change.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the final episode of Cumberland’s popular television programme Landmarks screened in 1979. The learned professor engaged in some crystal ball gazing. He saw genetic engineering and computer technology enabling sheep and cattle farming to sustain the economy deep into the twenty-first century. There was little mention of diversification of stock or land use, let alone of markets. Trees got some mention but grass of the kind favoured by herbivores was promoted as holding the key to future development.

Roche has missed a real opportunity to scrutinise this essentially nineteenth-century colonial vision which sustained the old order down to 1984. Even when I was a student scientists knew that our water was anything but clean as a result of agricultural, not industrial, pollution. Over-use of fertiliser was poisoning the streams while erosion continued in areas that would have been better left in trees.

New Zealand presented smiling farmlands to the world in a manner which would have delighted most nineteenth-century colonists, populist politicians such as Jock McKenzie and Bill Massey and the first couple of generations of settlers. But when one looked more closely there were many more problems confronting future land use than our over-confident agricultural scientists were prepared to admit. The landscape may have been pleasing to the eye but was all this farmland really the best and most sustainable way of using our land? Trees might not support as many families but they could hold the land better and earn more export dollars. Few raised doubts before Roger Douglas dared to ask such hard questions.

The new order Douglas established, of course, presents a whole new raft of problems for conservation of the environment. His insistence on accountability, cost-cutting and being able to sell products may have made for greater efficiency than the policies followed by the old statist/developmental order but insistence on immediate returns and the current narrowly economic focus does not augur well for future sensible management of soil and water resources. A much more future-oriented conceptual approach is required if we are to save our soil, limit erosion, keep our water clean and prevent flooding by ensuring that the high country is bound by trees. Achieving these goals is also going to take some lateral thinking because the extreme conservationist alternative of “leave it completely alone” is unrealistic.

The example of the Mackenzie country makes this abundantly clear. At its present levels of deprivation it would take 500 years to recover unaided. Over 100 years of damage has made it virtually useless but how many of us would be prepared to accept such a non-human timeframe of recovery? Aucklanders might be quite happy to see it die and even degenerate into a dust bowl (although another water crisis might be just the thing to bring this issue back to prominence) but Cantabrians could not contemplate that. Why not try different grasses and different forms of stock? Sheep eat grass lower than cattle or deer and should perhaps be retired from such places. Such coercion would cause an uproar amongst some high-country farmers but the noisest part of this lobby group is stuck in a colonial mindset. Why not try and plant some trees where possible as well? Ngai Tahu and other Maori land claimants might even be amenable to such experimentation.

The problem, of course, is whether the new downsized state has the clobbering power to impose such strategies. Perhaps the Resource Management Act of 1991, which Roche touches upon briefly at the end of his book, has the potential to benefit land and water as well as lawyers.

As someone who has written institutional history, I am sympathetic to Roche’s dilemma in not addressing these big questions more directly. After all, agencies like to have their record of service chronicled as much as individuals. Such commissioned histories are often written for the actors in their specific part of the melodrama of history.

Even so the questions involved in this apparently technical area are too important for such a narrowly institutional account. With a little more boldness and imagination Roche could have taken up the story from Tutira, Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s classic study of a Hawke’s Bay sheep station, which I re-read simultaneouly with Roche’s book. Guthrie-Smith continually condemns the evils of “over-grazing” and reveals a considerable loss of confidence in the capacity of science to cure land deprivation, especially in his later editions produced in the uncertain years of the late 1930s which contrast with the more confident 1921 first edition.

Guthrie-Smith sets the scene while men like Campbell, McCaskill and O’Connor have all written enough of a philosophical nature to enable the historian to address bigger questions and criticise the limits of the approach of the old order to holding land and taming water. Perhaps Roche should contemplate a smaller new edition directed more at the Resource Management Act which compares and criticises the old and new methods of approaching soil and water conservation, rather than simply recording the passing of one particular order. Then we would have in place an important part of the very incomplete jigsaw which constitutes New Zealand’s written environmental history. An obvious title for such a rethink would be “Blowing in the Wind”.

Tom Brooking is senior lecturer in history at the University of Otago. His biography of the Liberal land reformer, Jock Mckenzie, Lands for the People? The Highland Clearances and the Colonisation of New Zealand. A Biography of John McKenzie, was reviewed in the June issue. He is now writing a book on the changing New Zealand landscape.

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