Voting papers returned as of 6:12pm Thursday the 7th:

  • Hastings District: 36.26% (ranging from 26.88% in Flaxmere to 45.58% in Havelock North)
  • Napier: 36.83%
  • Central Hawke’s Bay: 47.42%

More detail here.

Environmental debt … a recipe for sleeping easy

On Thursday, Al Morrison, director-general of the Department of Conservation — our senior public service conservationist, but no wild-eyed zealot — gave a remarkable speech about the profound linkage between NZ’s natural resources and ecosystems and NZ’s economic viability.

Called Building Biodiversity: Building New Zealand, it is simply brilliant. I urge you to take the time to read it. Here it is in its entirety.

From time to time during the election campaign, people have asked me why I’ve talked and written so much about ‘economic development’ as opposed to focusing on the environment or council spending and accountability, which many see as my ‘core’ issues.

This speech answers that question … eloquently.

The simple bottom line is that any successful strategy for the securing the prosperity* of NZ — and certainly of our own primary production and tourism-based region — depends on prudent, sustainable management of the natural resources and ecosystems that underpin and service our economic activity. This should be a no-brainer.

[*Morrison embraces this definition of prosperity: “our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet.”]

Morrison offers his thoughts as to why this mind-set hasn’t yet taken root in sufficient numbers of our politicians and businesses. He argues that we must add to the purely moral dimension (which hasn’t proven to be enough), the economic imperative. A few excerpts …

We are degrading ecosystems and destroying species to a point where the services that nature provides, that we rely on for our sustenance, and that determine our prosperity, are being run down and out. If we are to save ourselves from ourselves, then appealing to the intrinsic value of nature is not enough. It is not a matter of giving up that sense of awesome wonder, but rather adding to that, an argument designed to compel the uncommitted. Unseemly though it may seem to nature lovers, we have to appeal at a less lofty level.

***

Our economy is dangerously exposed, seriously out of balance, and facing huge adjustments. And the prospect of getting back in to balance is a distant one. That’s bad news for those of us who think there is an urgent need to invest much more in conservation and good environmental management, because the received wisdom is that it’s only strong economies that can afford a clean environment.

***

Protecting our biodiversity, which means maintaining the ecological integrity of the places our native plants, birds, animals, freshwater and marine species need to survive, is the sleeping giant of the conservation economy.
New Zealand doesn’t have a brilliant track record. That we are relatively Clean and Green and 100 Percent Pure, is little credit to our deliberate efforts. The brand is largely available to us because we have had relatively little time and few people to mark our footprint over the entire land.

***

Nature’s systems are finite and we are using them to a point that there is a supply and demand problem. And we are exacerbating the problem by mismanaging and destroying the ecosystems that we rely on to supply those critical services. Technical solutions can stave off some of the problems for some of the time; storage dams, flood protection measures and so on. But at our current rate of biodiversity destruction, something has to give at some point.

***

It may seem crass to say that climate change and it’s big cousin, biodiversity loss, create a potential competitive advantage for New Zealand. But connecting the ethics and the self-interest; intrinsic value and economic benefits, helps us better understand that sustainable management of natural resources is not just about nice things to do when time and discretionary resources are available. It is a necessary investment in the natural capital that sits at the base of our economy. Water, soil, air, nutrient cycles, climate regulation, pollination…these and other services are the natural capital we need to survive and prosper.

***

The way we conventionally describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use and management, and capture the benefits and subsidies from that with a clear conscience. GDP can be measured in terms of income, expenditure, or production, but over time all three produce much the same result. None takes a systematic account of environmental impacts. Creating an environmental mess is good for GDP. It typically increases the immediate benefit for the developer by disguising true costs, and down the track the cost of cleaning up the mess generates further economic activity, usually at public expense.

Massive environmental subsidies are defined out of existence by labelling the costs as externalities and discounting them because they lie well in the future. We don’t talk about building up environmental debt in the same way as we talk about building up financial debt, and that stops us worrying about it. It’s a recipe for sleeping easy.

Not my recipe. Time to wake up folks!

Tom Belford

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1 Comment

  1. thanks, Tom, for bringing this forward; that's a great speech i can only applaud. if only the rest of our fellows – globally as well as locally – could begin to "get" this, we'd take a big step towards saving a future.

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