Shades of green, Philip Clarke

Green Politics
Stephen Rainbow,
Oxford University Press, $24.95

Environmental Planning in New Zealand
P Ali Memon and Harvey C Perkins (eds),
Dunmore Press, $39.95

‘Clean Green New Zealand’ has been accepted as a slogan by politicians and business people whose depth of understanding of environmental issues is suspect. Like many slogans, it does not stand up to objective examination. Witness, for example, the recent furore over the New Scientist article ‘Poisoned Paradise’. Amidst cries of ‘bloody treason’ from the slogan’s purveyors was little acknowledgement of the social and political milieu that condoned unsafe disposal of dangerous substances and, indeed, condoned and encouraged many other environmentally dubious activities. If the islands of New Zealand are largely clean and green, it is despite their human occupants.

Recent changes in environmental legislation, in particular the Resource Management Act 1991, hopefully presage a new era in environmental management in New Zealand. This legislation and its central concept of sustainability comprise much of the subject matter of Green Politics and Environmental Planning in New Zealand.

Stephen Rainbow’s Green Politics is the fifth in the series ‘Critical Issues in New Zealand Society’. In his preface, editor Paul Spoonley explains the series’ requirement that its authors introduce the key debates in a particular area, and then adopt a position and argue it through.

Rainbow has achieved a broad ranging but concise history of the variegated Green movement, from its roots in earlier movements to its present worldwide prominence. There is little discussion of the details of the present global environmental crisis; it is accepted as incontrovertible. The position Rainbow adopts is a pragmatic one. He proposes that environmentalists should work within the current political context, suggesting that part of the reasons for the Green movement’s limited political success is its distaste for the political process. He does not repudiate the holistic or metaphysical aspects of the Green movement, nor its questioning of modernism and the widely expressed hope for a ‘paradigm shift’ – a transformation in values that will evolve a more nurturing, less materialistic and, ultimately, sustainable society. Rainbow reminds us that history has demonstrated that utopianism is but a step from totalitarianism and expresses the hope that it will be possible to achieve a sustainable society within a pluralistic democracy. If the right decisions are not taken, the limitation of options in future may make totalitarian decisions necessary.

Environmental Planning in New Zealand, although concerned with environmental planning as a discipline, is not a ‘how to plan’ textbook. It contains eight essays, each with a different authorship. Topics covered are the urban environment, transportation, water resources, mineral and energy resources, indigenous forests, rural and mountain land use, the coastal environment, and recreation and tourism. Much of each essay is historical, descriptive and analytical; only a small part consists of suggestions for further action. The historical material is useful in explaining the evolution from planning to control activities to the present emphasis on the control of effects. Planning in the sense of trying to make it possible for, as the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts it, ‘things to occur which would not otherwise happen’ has been a feature of national and local government in New Zealand since European settlement. However, objectives have been poorly identified and seldom realised, legislation vague or contradictory, and the environmental effects subordinated or left out altogether. As Kevin O’Connor succinctly notes in his essay on rural and mountain land use, ‘Planning failure has been a feature of public policy in many parts of New Zealand life.’

Although the essays aspire to academic objectivity, shades of opinion are discernable, particularly regarding the compatibility of planning with the market ethos, the role of the State, and the efficacy of the Resource Management Act in some areas. Common themes include the necessity for integrated planning, the ‘polluter pays’ concept, and the need to achieve environmental objectives by using economic instruments despite the difficulty of quantifying the monetary value of environmental effects.

Of the essays in Environmental Planning, I found O’Connor’s particularly useful for his clear statement of universally applicable principles. I also empathise with Perkins, Devlin, Simmons and Batty in their alarm over ‘tourism planning based on boosterism’. The naive promotion of tourism and the inadequate analyis of its potential social and environmental impacts are reminiscent of the sort of attitudes that led to wholesale clearance of indigenous forest for ‘productive’ farmland without regard for environmental degradation. These attitudes are far from extinct in New Zealand politics, national or local. The efficacy of New Zealand’s new resource management law will be demonstrated by evolution of practical concepts for sustainability at regional and district level. Several authors in Environmental Planning, and Rainbow in his book, point out the possible problems, based on historical experience: for example, the tendency for local bodies to be hijacked by vested interests, and the danger of environmental issues being dealt with in a token manner, while all else remains business as usual.

Rainbow and the majority of the commentators in Environmental Planning agree that the State must continue to have a role in planning, particularly in setting environmental standards. David Pepper in his 1984 publication Roots of Modern Environmentalism discussed how societies’ concerns with environmental issues tend to decline in inverse proportion to their concerns with economic issues. Recently, New Zealand has been subjected to a fair bit of economic alarmism and unqualified exhortation for economic growth. The bean counters need to realise that the viability of any economic activity is ultimately dependent on environmental viability. I hope these books are widely read, not just by academics but also by those involved in putting the requirements of sustainable management into practice.


Philip Clarke is a Stewart Island fisherman and local body politician.


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