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About this book

This report is organised in three parts.

The first part provides contextual information for understanding the interaction between New Zealand society and the natural environment. It contains three chapters which describe: the land, people and cultural heritage (Chapter 2); production and consumption patterns, and the economic and social trends associated with these (Chapter 3); and the legal and institutional arrangements for managing the environment (Chapter 4).

The second part describes the state of our natural environment. It contains five chapters which focus respectively on: the atmosphere (Chapter 5), ambient air (Chapter 6), marine and fresh water (Chapter 7), land (Chapter 8), and biological diversity (Chapter 9). Each of these chapters has a standard format based on the OECD's 'Pressure State Response' framework (see Box 1.2). They are each divided into sections describing the state of the data, the nature of the environment, the pressures on it, its current state, and society's responses to it.

The concluding chapter reflects the report's main findings.

Every effort has been made to include the best available information up to mid-1996, though, in many cases, we have had to settle for data from earlier years or even decades. A considerable amount of information and comment was provided free by scientists, research organisations, regional councils and government departments. Although the report is scientifically based, the editors have tried to keep technical language to a minimum and have sometimes simplified complex information for ease of understanding. Any resulting inaccuracies are the responsibility of the editors, not the scientists and peer reviewers who contributed to each chapter.

All chapters were reviewed in their entirety by the following government departments whose factual corrections should not necessarily be taken as endorsements of the report's perspective or interpretive comments: the Ministry of Agriculture; the Ministry of Commerce (including Energy and Tourism); the Department of Conservation; the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Forestry; the Ministry of Health; Land Information New Zealand; the Prime Minister and Cabinet's Department; Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Māori Development); Statistics New Zealand; the Ministry of Transport; and the Treasury.

Although this report is about the current state of the environment, the present is a child of the past and cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the evolutionary, geological and historical processes that contributed to it. For this reason, all chapters review the recent past and some dig into the deep past, at times going back to the origins of life and of Earth itself. The point of this is to underline the vast evolutionary timespans that produced our natural environment and the very short timespans that can destroy it.

The deep history perspective also has the cautionary effect of showing that human existence, much less industrial society, is a very short and recent event in Earth history. If Earth's time were compressed into a single year, our ancestors would only have parted company with the chimpanzee at about two in the afternoon on the last day of that year. Modern humans would have evolved just 15-20 minutes before midnight. On this timescale, civilisation and agriculture are barely one minute old and the era of mass production and consumption is a mere second-so brief and unprecedented that its sustainability cannot be taken for granted, however 'natural' it may seem to us now.

Box 1.2: The Pressure-State-Response framework

Much of our information on the environment is unconnected. Sorting through it and making sense of it is difficult without some organised framework or plan of attack. For this report, we have decided to use an approach developed by the OECD in which information is organised according to its ability to tell us about the pressures on the environment, the state of the environment and society's responses to environmental problems. The Pressure-State-Response (PSR) framework is based on a concept of causality. Human activities exert pressures on the environment, changing both its quality and the quantity of natural resources. These changes alter the state, or condition, of the environment. The human responses to these changes include any organised behaviour which aims to reduce, prevent or mitigate undesirable changes.

Under the PSR framework, a pressure might be a pollutant discharged from a factory, or draining into a river from the land; it could be the removal of forest from the land or over-harvesting by fishers and hunters; and it could be the release of gases into the atmosphere. The critical factor is the human element: environmental changes occurring through human activity, not simply as a natural process. This distinction may seem an arbitrary one to birds dislodged from a fallen tree. Whether the tree was felled by wind or a chainsaw, its impact is the same. From an environmental management perspective, however, the distinction is important. Pressures caused or abetted by human activity can, in principle at least, be controlled or modified. For this reason, the PSR framework tends to highlight human pressures more than natural pressures.

The state of the environment is its condition at a particular time. This is assessed by measuring various aspects of the atmosphere, air, water, land and biota (living things) to see whether they are changing (Chapters 5 to 9).

Responses are the organised actions people take to either reduce environmental pressures, or directly improve environmental conditions. These can include scientific monitoring and research, the imposition of laws and rules to make people change their behaviour, and the use of economic penalties or incentives to bring about voluntary behaviour change (such as taxes, fees, grants, subsidies, tradeable permits and quotas etc.).

In this report each of the core chapters (Chapters 5 to 9) contains separate sections on pressures, states and responses. While some pressures are mentioned only in a single chapter (e.g. CFC gas emissions into the atmosphere), others have multiple impacts and so recur
in several chapters (e.g. fossil fuel burning by vehicles and industry, land and water use by pastoral agriculture). In some cases, the multiplicity of environmental impacts, and the interactions among different pressures are more complex than they appear in our discussion. The report tends to confine itself to proximate pressures (i.e. those which have the most direct impact on the environment). But proximate pressures are often influenced by more indirect social and economic factors (distal pressures) which are harder to expose. In developing responses to environmental problems it is important to consider the roles played by both proximate and distal pressures.

Figure 1.1: The Pressure - State - Response model of environmental change.
Textual description of figure 1.1

Pressures on the environment affect the state of the environment. Responses to the state of the environment affect both pressures on and the state of the environment.