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Sustainable New Zealand: What is Your Problem?

Sustainable New Zealand:

What is Your Problem?

By Stephen Knight

The other day I was asked by a student: What is your problem? I’d been moaning about the fuzzy thinking behind the sustainable development clause in the new Local Government Act passed last year. I’m sure he meant it in a caring, sharing, rhetorical kind of way. But, still, my bluff was called. Fair enough.

Clause 3(d) of the Act ‘…provides for local authorities to play a broad role in promoting the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of their communities, taking a sustainable development approach.” So, to get a handle on why I felt uncomfortable about this clause, I went fishing, and I went fishing in particular for trout.

Since their introduction into New Zealand waterways in 1867, trout have been giving our less aggressive native freshwater fauna a hard time. Or, at least, we assume they have been: there is surprisingly little research on the direct impact of trout on native fish and invertebrates. But what evidence does exist suggests that, while not seen as a pest, trout have modified the environment in a very pest-like way. This is because they were introduced into an ecosystem inhabited by small and shy native animals, which had not adapted to such large, aggressive, free-swimming hunters. The obvious exception is eels, which give trout – well, anything really – a run for their money.

In addition to trout, there have been about twenty introductions of exotic fish, including rudd, koi carp, tench, and perch. Fisheries scientists note that both koi carp and rudd are omnivorous, and carp are such active eaters they muddy the waters and affect water quality. Perch are carnivorous and compete with trout. Hence it is likely that perch and trout, trout's introduced forage fish (smelt and bullies), and other introduced species, create problems for our native fish through direct predation, food and habitat competition, and alteration of habitat.

Fresh water fisheries scientists such as Dr Bob McDowall point out the contradictory attitude we have to such impacts in water compared to land. Part of the problem is that indigenous freshwater biodiversity barely registers on the conservation radar: native freshwater fish have a poor status among scientists, the public, and resource managers. McDowall, who has been tracking such things for some time, points to the 1979 250-page report of a conservation congress organised by the Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. It mentions freshwater fish only once, and even then, this was by a Tasmanian scientist who noted that under that Australian state’s law, fish were not even considered animals. McDowall also records examples of assessments of environmental effects (AEE) that declared areas of known freshwater fisheries to have no wildlife value.

Awareness has grown, but only just. Test yourself on this: do you consider a valid measure of healthy waterways to be whether trout can survive in them? (If you do, you’re in good company, because so does the Resource Management Act). And, if so, should we manage waterways for trout? And, if so, why don’t we measure the health of native bush by whether or not exotic species (plant or animal) can survive in it? And, if so, why don’t we manage bush to ensure the health of exotic species?

Which is simply to point out that the underlying assumptions of what defines ecological ‘health’ influences what is considered sustainable behaviour. One man’s sports-animal is another man’s pest; or, moving to land, a river bank of crack willow might be ‘unnatural’ and full of weed, but it’s arguably pretty damn healthy and sustainable. So is a forest full of pigs and deer. It will change over time, but eventually the bush will settle down to a new dynamic balance. So definitions of sustainability are influenced by the environment being considered, the species involved, and the particular views of the decision-makers and the public. Eventually, what we decide is sustainable will depend upon the averaged sum total of individual biases, which is another way of defining consensus decision-making.

Thus the issue is not just working out how to solve a problem, but agreeing that we have one in the first place. I can argue that trout-supporting lakes and rivers are healthy, but have low ecological integrity, a distinction teased out by New Zealand researcher Geoff Park. The analogy made is to amputating a limb from a human: the person may be quite healthy, but have lowered integrity. You can further argue that, from an ecological point of view, higher integrity means greater sustainability. That is because indigenous plants and animals have co-evolved over millions of years, and are better adapted to local conditions. Thus maintenance costs over time will be much lower, because such systems are more likely to be self-sufficient. This is a point of view favoured by, for example, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Thus, it could be argued, a measure of progress towards sustainable development is the degree of ecological integrity.

But there is a fundamental problem with this. If self-sufficiency were the measure, arguably we should let the weeds and animal pests fight it out with the natives until a new equilibrium is reached. This is because we are dealing with heavily modified systems, and so the point where sustainability is reached – that is, where the system is self-sustaining – will not be one where there are large numbers of indigenous species. As an example, again using trout, research suggests that trout predate other introduced species such as mosquitofish, which is good for native inanga, because it seems the mosquitofish out-compete the locals for food and space. Arguably, trout are now good for native fish because we’ve modified their ecosystems to such an extent, that things might get worse if we take them away. This also applies on land. To maintain indigenous plant and animal biodiversity, you need to invest large amounts of time and money, and keep investing it.

However, and to add another layer of complexity, this all depends on how you interpret the data. We can call this conundrum the Lomborg Effect, whereby the same data gets interpreted different ways depending on your viewpoint.

The iconoclastic Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg highlighted how important it is to establish not just agreement on how to tackle the problem, but whether there is a problem to be tackled. Much of the criticism of Lomborg was his selective reliance on secondary sources: if you choose the right array of other people’s research, and omit the difficult or contradictory, you can prove just about anything. And critics were correct: Professor Lomborg mis-represented issues. But Lomborg’s work did point out the importance of distinguishing truth from semi-truths for those not intimately involved in environmental research. For example, if I say the rate of biodiversity loss internationally over the next fifty years will be about 0.7%, (one figure quoted by Lomborg) does that have any meaning? None, really, unless you know what species are involved, and where they are being lost. Losing keystone species, such as birds that distribute plants seeds and therefore shape forests, is arguably more problematic than losing species that do not have such an influence on ecosystems. And if these birds are being lost from a rare forest type, such as the New Zealand bush, the problem is greater still.

From a Lomborgian perspective, the presence of trout has helped ensure the maintenance of more healthy water (both in terms of quality and quantity) than otherwise would be the case, and anyway there is no direct link between trout and the disappearance of native species. So it’s really not a problem. On the other hand, what research does exist suggests many native species are marginalized by the presence of trout, and managing water systems for trout health may not always help the natives. Indeed, from an ecological integrity point of view, trout are a problem.

So back to original question: What is your problem? The answer is, it depends on how you have framed the original set of conditions. And different starting points can generate different, and contradictory, conclusions. Yes, trout do compromise sustainability; or, No, they don’t. Both conclusions could be labelled ‘sustainable development.’

This brings us to the myth of public consultation as a way of reaching a pathway to sustainability’. Much of what passes for an assessment of sustainability is actually a process to find a middle ground of various perceptions about the world, whether in the natural, social, cultural or economic spheres. The basic argument is that we can improve the quality of decision-making by including stakeholders in an inclusive process that identifies, through consensus, strategies for sustainable development. The current crop of long-term community plans being prepared under the new Local Government Act by city and district councils are an example. And, as a way of raising consciousness, this is a very good idea. But this improvement in governance should not be confused with improving sustainability. The two might line up, but it depends on the community involved. One group of people in one part of the country could come to a quite different conclusion about what is a sustainable process from another group. From a democratic point of view, that is to be applauded; from a sustainable development point of view, it’s no better than playing the pokies. The Act provides for councils to promote a sustainable development approach: presumably, given the emphasis on community-based decision making, what sustainable development ends up to mean will be driven largely by what the community decides it means.

Hence the comment about fuzzy thinking. If the requirement on local government to pursue sustainable development can still give rise to quite different, indeed contradictory, outcomes, then requiring councils to take better account of what communities want may not increase levels of sustainability. What is missing is some prior discussion on what improved levels of sustainability might mean, before asking people to decide how to achieve it. This in turn inevitably requires an education process and a raising of understanding: who should do that, and how? In Auckland, increasing sustainability might mean more motorways, even if that seems contradictory to indicators of sustainability. This is because the original motorway design was never completed, and not completing it would leave Auckland socially, economically and ecologically worse off than completing it. But the reasons need to be clearly explained, prior to a consensus being reached.

In the end, what communities want may have nothing to do with sustainable development; indeed, could be contrary to what some consider sustainable development to mean. One strong strand of analysis suggests that sustainable development requires the protecting and enhancing of not just ecological health, but ecological integrity. So what local government is being asked to do, from this point of view, is ask communities to frame development within clearly defined ecological limits that are strongly related to indigenous biodiversity and capacity. Most communities would not see sustainable development that way: indeed, would label it too extreme. But research also indicates that taking a more benign view of sustainable development would simply lead to a slower decline in ecological integrity, and eventually, overall environmental health. So we will still be worse-off, only it will take longer.

The new Local Government Act has still to be tested. It might well be that communities will effectively progress sustainability. But this depends on clearly identifying what assumptions are operating when asking communities to help shape long-term plans. Primary among the initial questions is, What, exactly, is your problem?


- Stephen Knight c/o Planning Department, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand

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