Face the facts - we aren't so green

The enthusiastic response of Kiwis and many Government agencies to the Rena shipwreck disaster was heartening. 

A foreign-owned vessel messing up our environment and wildlife provoked a deep sense of injustice and motivated many to get involved in the clean-up.

But sadly, this remarkable response really just serves to highlight our denial of the real environmental disaster that we are increasingly desperately avoiding.

If only New Zealand's real "worst ever" environmental disaster was so well publicised, officially acknowledged and stimulated such urgent action. And if only our real disaster was so easily fixed and even better that everyone could be involved its remediation.

Unfortunately, unlike the Rena disaster, the true environmental and biodiversity catastrophe is so pervasive it cannot be cleaned up by teams of volunteers; rather its cure will involve a total rethink of what we accept as being "good for the economy".

At present, any economic gain is considered a great thing, regardless of the losses inflicted on the environment or society; neither of which are counted or even mentioned. To have a future, we must grow up as a nation and begin to take into account the losses inflicted on our natural capital.

Most Kiwis perceive our country as clean and green, and this perception is shared by the rest of the world, although doubts are creeping in.

Clean and green is what defines us; it is fundamental to differentiating New Zealand from geographically closer competitors in world markets.

So, the perception and the reality of environmental health and sustainability are essential to a secure economic future and we trash it at our peril.

Unfortunately, a "hands-off" approach by successive governments in the past few decades means we have slipped a long way towards the bottom of the heap.

This news will come as a bombshell to most Kiwis; but a recent peer-reviewed international study using seven well-accepted measures of environmental performance revealed that per capita we are 18th worst of 189 countries in the world. The frightening reality is that we only rank one notch higher than China, at 17th worst per capita.

Not surprisingly, for overall impact China placed much lower given its population, they ranked third worst behind Brazil and the United States. When it comes to this overall impact New Zealand ranked 47th worst in the world.

We smugly scorn other countries for trading in endangered species. Whether it's rhino and elephant tusks in Africa or the condemnation of Japanese whaling, we vehemently condemn this destruction of indigenous biodiversity.

In a delightful irony here in 100 per cent-pure-New Zealand we harvest, export and sell locally at least five endangered freshwater fish species.

Four of the five species in your whitebait fritter are listed as endangered, but you can buy them at any supermarket. Our amazing, endemic longfin eel is commercially harvested and exported but is one of our threatened species.

Sadly our Fisheries Ministry is "managing" them to extinction by allowing them to be harvested under the much-lauded "quota management system" that even it admits is failing longfin eels.

This freshwater fish calamity is but one example of scores of examples revealing how we got be so low on world environmental rankings so quickly. The recent unprecedented and totally unregulated boom in dairy farming has had enormous impacts on our rivers and lakes and their biodiversity.

The extreme number of cows we now have per hectare, made possible by imported fertilisers and palm kernel, is now more than twice the carrying capacity of our land and rivers.

Just one clue of how far we have gone is the fact that two thirds of our 50 freshwater fish species are listed as threatened. The impacts to our waterways their decline portends are only just beginning to be seen.

A recent Environment Court decision confirmed a limit of one cow for every 2ha to protect Lake Taupo – this is about a third of the stocking rate for the rest of the country.

Now it's official – we have the world's highest proportion of threatened species, and 161 countries are cleaner and greener than us. This environmental devastation driving us down to the bottom of world rankings is the result of a failure of successive governments to measure or even realise the true economic value of a healthy environment.

It's a bit like paying all the bills with a credit card and pretending all is well with the home budget. Healthy rivers, lakes and soils are our natural capital. But we are running them down in a mad rush, ignoring the fact that we have long since exceeded the limits.

Our ecological capital credit card is maxed out and it's long past time for action. However, the bizarre response from Government is to take money from conservation and continually weaken the Resource Management Act, driving us even further down.

Many New Zealanders are now painfully aware of the true implications of the weakening of regulation. Owners of leaky homes, residents of liquefaction zones or those hit by landslides are the latest victims of our supposed leaders putting short-term economic gains before sustainability.

These urban examples are well-known and publicised but the same lack of regulation has led to environmental degradation in the rest of the country. The losses are less well-known but are proof of the lobbying power of industry, the profit takers who are long gone when disaster strikes.

Mike Joy is a senior lecturer in ecology and environmental science at Massey University.