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Taking the Long View

Taking the Long View
Gord Stewart

There are five days each year I cherish. Three of them come in May when I attend the Auckland Writers Festival. Two are in August when I go to the annual conference of the Environmental Defence Society (EDS).

In both cases, it’s a chance to step back from my regular activities – time to take a deep breath, take some notes, and take it all in.

The Writers Festival is a personal thing. It’s a chance to see in the flesh – and hear from – authors I have already enjoyed and others I soon will.

The EDS conference is more of a professional outing. It’s an opportunity to hear a broad range of experts and specialists discuss and debate crucial environmental issues of the day.

This year’s EDS event put a spotlight on the new Labour-led Government’s ambitious environmental reforms. Titled ‘Green Light or Light Green?’ the conference explored whether it’s full speed ahead on much needed change. Or are we just dabbling?

Planned reforms in resource management law, fisheries, urban development, freshwater management and conservation were all considered. Speakers were joined by a panel in each session for a lively discussion, followed by questions from the floor. All points of view were represented and respected, recognising that the challenges are great and we must work together to solve them.

Four Government ministers, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the National Party Spokesperson for the Environment were there to speak and take questions. With some 300 attendees, mostly professionals in the field, questions were insightful and tough.

Kate Raworth, a self-described ‘renegade’ economist, joined the conference by live feed from the UK early the first day. Her ‘doughnut economics’ would serve as a good basis for the discussions to follow.

Doughnut economics proposes caring for the needs of people through a ‘social foundation’, while recognising there is an ‘ecological ceiling.’ Between the floor and ceiling is the doughnut, what she describes as ‘a safe and just place for humanity’.

Raworth talked about a ‘thriving’ economy, not one predicated on endless growth. She suggested our goal should be ‘a good life for all without overshooting planetary boundaries’.

"The Doughnut of Social and Planetary Boundaries". Credit: Kate Raworth, 2017

So it was good news that we are shifting away from GDP as our main indicator of progress. There will be a focus, instead, on higher living standards for all New Zealanders by growing our human, social, natural, and financial/physical capitals. Together, these represent New Zealand's economic capital.

A wicked problem in urban reform is building affordable, desirable-density housing and meeting demand, while protecting high quality agricultural soils on the edge of our growing towns and cities. There were some great ideas floated, but perhaps the best was that we need a whole conference on this topic!

Raewyn Peart, EDS Policy Director and author of the new book Voices from the Sea: Managing New Zealand’s Fisheries, noted significant impacts on the health of the marine environment that need our attention include trawling and dredging, and erosion and sediment.

With recent talk about the use of cameras onboard fishing boats to monitor bycatch, it was pleasing to hear that Moana New Zealand has had cameras in place on all its boats for the past five years.

Reflecting on our future prospects, business commentator Rod Oram covered more than you could possibly imagine in his 20-minute talk. Dame Anne Salmond chaired a moving session that considered the role of Maori lore and values in driving environmental reform. Both of them, by the way, are contributors to a just published collection of essays entitled The Big Questions: What is New Zealand’s future?

The freshwater reform session examined the challenge of water restoration and took a broad look at agricultural practices and expectations for the future. The growing impact of climate change and plant-based food alternatives were both noted.

Confirmation of Pamu Farms of New Zealand’s move to dramatically lower its environmental footprint – ‘less fertiliser, less water use, better for animals, better for people’ – will set the bar high and serve as an example for others to follow.

To begin the recovery from setbacks suffered by DOC during National’s nine year reign, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage reveled in the $182 million increase in its funding over the next four years. Reinstating of the department’s advocacy role is another welcome change. And with the increased funding for predator control, Sage noted, “Possums, stoats and rats were big losers in the 2017 election!”

It was a heartening two days. Many policies still lack detail, but three things for sure: The new Government understands and acknowledges the pressing environmental issues we face. They truly care. And they are committed to doing something about it.

Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profits.

More Info …

Environmental Defence Society – Conference videos and speaker presentations, plus info on EDS publications and other projects,

Doughnut Economics: 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist, by Kate Raworth, Random House Business Books, paperback 2018

The Big Questions: What is New Zealand’s Future? Essays by 16 noted Kiwis, Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2018

Voices from the Sea: Managing New Zealand’s Fisheries, by Raewyn Peart, Environmental Defence Society, 2018

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