Wading in the waters, Sam Mahon

Beyond Manapouri: 50 Years of Environmental Politcs in New Zealand
Catherine Knight
Canterbury University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988503042

The battle to preserve our waters in this country has left us, as a nation, almost as bruised and divided as we were during the Springbok tour. There is a moment in the middle of any maelstrom in which you wonder how you got there; by which wrong move; by courtesy of whose malevolent god in particular. As if in answer, Catherine Knight has elegantly traced the evolution of environmental politics from Manapouri in 1972 to the Ruataniwha dam 30 years later. It is an overlay of torn landscapes, muddied waters, greed and broken hearts; it is a paean of lost opportunities.

My high-school biology teacher told us that New Zealand’s great ecological advantage lay in the fact that we were 20 years behind the rest of the world. How a clever little country such as ours could have ignored the international wisdom of those who had already witnessed the degradation of natural infrastructures has beggared at least my limited understanding. Knight points out that the OECD predicted the ecological quagmire in which we seem now to be struggling as far back as 1980. Yet no one in a position to effectively change our environmental course took the correct action. Knight’s evidence seems to suggest that it was not any lack of intellect that “steered us wrong”, but a lack of nerve in the face of rural and corporate hegemony. Even Geoffrey Palmer’s Resource Management Act (RMA) was little more use than an elegant bowsprit on a ship with no keel. And, I might add, what use is elegance with pirates in the wheelhouse?

The great failure of the RMA, according to Knight, is the lack of direction it gives to local government. As she points out, to date there has been no real direction from central government for bottom lines, making it impossible (sometimes conveniently so) for regional councils to develop effective regulatory measures. Some would say that when Nick Smith established the bottom line for river health as “wade-able” he had at last drawn a line of constraint. Well, as it happens, I have just spent two days replacing the field tiles of my septic tank. The resulting ooze was eminently wade-able, but I would defy anyone to suggest a fish could live in it. Smith’s raising of the acceptable E. coli level in water to create, as if by magic, a brand new batch of swimmable rivers, was taken seriously by no one save a couple of talkback hosts, a huddle of Environment Canterbury commissioners, and Barney the hedgehog.

Compounding these feats of ministerial prestidigitation, Smith’s team also dreamed up for us the Land and Water Forum (which every self-respecting environmental NGO eventually left), the Sustainable Water Programme of Action (inevitably dubbed the Programme of Inaction), and the Clean Streams Accord, which Knight describes as “strategically adroit as it allowed the agricultural sector to be seen to be doing something … while allowing the intensive farming model to continue fundamentally unaltered.” She goes on to sum up: “the failure to address freshwater degradation is a failure to identify and impose limits.”  

One of the most effective political strategies of any political party is playing for time. When I look around at those of us who have been fighting for our rivers over the last 20 years, we are an aged crew. To a great extent we are fighting for our memories, believing in the principles of the RMA and even Simon Upton’s imperative that we should not extract so much from our natural capital as to impoverish the needs of the generations to come. 

The longer it takes for a government to put in place a protective bottom line, the fewer will be the rivers still remaining with something worth protecting. Indeed, many of the rivers we have loved have already disappeared, and those that are sick will be believed to have always been so. As Knight points out, “Environmental changes are often gradual, imperceptible, and then become the norm; at which point it is hard to mobilize opposition.”

In relation to Federated Farmers and her battle with them over Tenure Review, Dr Ann Brower once described hegemony in this way: 

Their power is not; “I’m stronger than you, give me your lunch.” Their power is; “I’m stronger than you, and I’m so strong that you want to give me your lunch.” This is what hegemony is. Their power is so strong that it changes your desires and interests. It shapes what you want. So unless the state steps in, the bullies will always win, that’s just the default position.

Since the Central Plains scheme was envisaged in 1991, Canterbury’s small rural communities, just like the one in which I have lived for the last 30 years, have been subject to this inarticulate pressure to conform. Anyone who speaks out against any of the present irrigation projects is usually marginalised by their community. 

As Knight points out, there is a history of over-representation of farmers on regional councils, including our own Canterbury Regional Council. The majority of members of our Canterbury zone committees are also farmers, all democratically appointed, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron. But this “democracy” is illusory. The model for Canterbury’s water management has been taken from economist Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. But her Nobel prize-winning thesis has, a little like the RMA, been twisted in its adoption. Among the eight tenets of her thesis are trust and the community’s ability to shame those who take more than their share of common property. But it’s a long time since we have seen trust in the matter of water acquisition, and there is very little shame in our communities any more. It got lost somewhere between Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” and John Key’s culture of the individual. 

The arguments for rural intensification and development are led by the largest union in the country, Federated Farmers. The arguments for a precautionary approach are, for the most part, defended by those few scientists and academics whose livelihoods are not imperilled by some dreary memorandum of understanding with the farming sector or a tremulous government department; it takes, I imagine, a certain amount of courage to express an idea today that might disenfranchise you tomorrow. 

But there is a tipping point coming, when the accumulation of clear and coherent voices speaking truth to power will set this runaway, malevolent engine into reverse. One of the most coherent of these voices belongs to Knight. Her quotation from Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth is apt in the context of what she is trying to tell us: “First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Sam Mahon was once described as a “pivotal irritator”.

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