Shooting the messenger

This week New Zealand made headlines in the New York Times for all the wrong reasons. When it comes to our 100% Pure brand and our commitment to maintain it, the mask is well and truly slipping.

The article in question was about our pristine landscapes and vistas soon to be splashed all over the world through the Hobbit movies, and queried whether we in Aotearoa truly do live up to our clean green brand.

This poster from Murray's office (Flight of the Conchords) sums up our approach to marketing of The Hobbit, but how true is it?

In the article, the author quoted international science that ranks New Zealand as 18th worst out of 189 countries with regard to our impact on native vegetation, habitat destruction and number of endangered species. It also looked into our environmental ranking in other global studies, and investigated our commitment to reducing carbon (you wouldn't have to look too hard on that one, since New Zealand has just made international ripples for bailing out of the Kyoto protocol).

In addition to the internationally peer-reviewed science from the global study, New Zealand freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy was interviewed and he pointed out the degradation to our rivers, lakes and streams and said "There are almost two worlds in New Zealand. There is the picture-postcard world and then there is the reality."

There is nothing new in what Dr Joy said - and all of it is backed by science. What has surprised me is the vitriol that has spewed forth at him since then. 

A chap called Mark Unsworth - one of those lobbyists apparently who represents Caltex, British Gas and (surprisingly) Air New Zealand, sent Dr Joy a rather volatile email entitled "ego trip", where he berated him for risking jobs and incomes from decreased tourism to New Zealand, presumably as a result of Mike pointing out what we already know - that we aren't as clean as we pretend to be.

Let me dumb it down a little for the Mark Unsworths of this world. It is not people like Mike Joy who are "risking jobs and incomes from decreased tourism to New Zealand". It is our own mucky, degrading habits, and a lax approach to environmental care and regulation, most notably taken by the current government.

If Mark Unsworth is truly annoyed (and his email sent at 12.15am suggests he must be), he should take it up with our prime minister and cabinet, who have recently led us to being the only country to vote against protecting Maui dolphins from fishing impacts at an IUCN meeting; as well as attempting to allow mining in National Parks and other protected areas; as well as creating an Exclusive Economic Zone EEZ bill with no real environmental teeth; as well as pulling out of a joint proposal with the United States to protect the Ross Sea in Antarctica; as well as reducing environmental protection through the Resource Management Act (our largest piece of environmental legislation); as well as slashing Department of Conservation budgets; as well as interfering with local government in Canterbury to "accelerate large-scale water storage and irrigation" while doing away with those pesky democratically elected councillors and refusing Canterbury citizens the right to appeal to the environment court (which everyone else in every other region has the right to do).

The New York Times article is nothing new. In 2009 Guardian journalist Fred Pearce accused New Zealand of shamelessly giving "two fingers to the global community" for our branding ourselves as clean and green while we backed down on our climate change commitments, in fact increasing our emissions per capita while everyone else was trying to reduce theirs.

Last year, John Key was interviewed by BBC Hardtalk journalist Stephen Sackur about our continuing to trade on being 100% Pure. The prime minister's response was to say that we were 100% purer than other countries, which isn't very honest and is not even very good maths. You can watch the three minutes of the environmental part of the interview here.

In more hopeful news, the CEO lobby group Pure Advantage released a report this month outlining New Zealand's opportunities in the international race for green growth. Gareth Morgan (not a member) has also backed this up. There are plenty of opportunities for New Zealand here, to continue to capitalise on our $21 billion tourism industry, to create high-value agricultural exports that are anchored in sustainability and which we can charge top dollar for, and to make the most of our best and brightest scientists and entrepreneurs who wish to be a part of the green race. All we need is the will and the commitment not to continue to degrade our immeasurably valuable clean green brand... and to stop attacking those who are qualified and brave enough to point out our failings.

What do you think? Have we risked our international reputation in our endless quest for growth? Is it fair to attack the messenger? Are there environmental issues that you feel are being swept under the carpet? I'd love to hear about them.

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