View all publications

Embracing the sustainability ethic

While this report conveys a sense of what has been lost and what is under threat, it also shows that much is being done to halt and reverse the adverse environmental impacts. These days New Zealanders value their environment very highly. In a national poll conducted in 1993, two-thirds of the 70 percent who responded said that, if necessary, they would accept a drop in economic growth in order to protect the environment (Gendall et al., 1994). In the same survey, 17 percent reported belonging to an environmental group, a third said they would accept much higher taxes and cuts in their standard of living to protect the environment, and half said they had given money to an environmental campaign in the past five years.

In such a climate of high environmental awareness, fewer people and industries these days are prepared to knowingly impose major impacts on the environment. The Christchurch Press reported that a survey of 380 manufacturers in 1994, for instance, found that three-quarters thought it was in their interest to preserve New Zealand's high environmental reputation.

There is a keen and growing social and economic sense of the value of sustainable environmental management. The ethic of ecological sustainability is enshrined in key pieces of environmental legislation such as the Resource Management Act, the Conservation Act, the Forests Act and the Fisheries Act. Accompanying this sustainability emphasis is a developing environmental management practice which includes the increasing use of the precautionary principle, of polluter pays and economic instruments that identify and transfer the costs of environmental damage to those who cause it.

Both central and local government have been and are setting sustainable environmental improvement targets through formal statutory and policy frameworks and strategies. Systematic monitoring and evaluation systems are being developed. National, regional and local environmental indicators are evolving and in some cases are in place. Work is underway to address the problems of unsustainable land use and to direct science funding toward research on sustainability problems.

Business increasingly values the attributes of a cleaner, more sustainable environment and are themselves busy developing and applying quality and environmental management systems to benchmark and improve their performance. New Zealand's competitive advantage lies in a diverse range of quality products from a quality environment. There is money to be saved from undertaking environmental audits of manufacturing, distribution and service systems and implementing cleaner production and waste reduction practices. There is also a future for nature-based tourism, provided the carrying capacity of the environment is carefully measured and respected.

The sustainability ethic is also helped by a growing awareness of the importance and utility of Māori views and values. These have developed over 700-800 years of sometimes hard-earned experience in living with the indigenous environment and they are most effectively expressed when Māori participate actively in environmental decision making and have the ability to make decisions for their own resources.

Environmental improvement: a challenge for everyone

Environmental impacts come from many sources and are often the result of a large number of small, diffuse impacts accumulating over time to produce a significant effect. Managing day to day impacts can help considerably. Individual and household behaviour is very important. Awareness of and active measures to manage the use of energy and water and of the generation and disposal of domestic waste can help considerably over time. Energy efficiency is a direct substitute for more power generation and provides the benefits of energy services at less overall cost to the user and the environment. If motor vehicles are driven carefully and conservatively, less fuel is used and fewer emissions generated. Again the user benefits economically and the environment benefits through cumulative reduction of adverse impacts.

In the primary production arena, small cumulative improvements can also deliver progressive gains. If every land user aimed to maximise diversity of plants and animals, enormous gains could be reaped. If remnant forest areas were left and fenced, wetlands protected or even recreated, riparian strips left free from use, steep erosion prone land retired, diverse tree species including natives planted, and more mixed crop and crop/animal combinations used, then production would be more economically and environmentally resilient and, over time, more sustainable. The less a farmer has to rely on importing agrichemicals to sustain farming, the better the result for the local and wider environment. Further, over time, such farming should cost less, too.

Where to from here?

This report provides a first comprehensive stocktake of the state of New Zealand's environment. Whilst much of its message may seem surprisingly grim to those who are not aware of the nature of environmental impacts in these temperate, wind-blown islands, there is much to be proud of, too. The pendulum of introduced change seems to have completed its swing and to be returning to a state of better balance. New Zealand is conquering its problems of point source pollution. A large amount of the country is now permanently protected. More than ever before people are aware of and value our heritage and are starting to use it constructively and sustainably. More diverse, quality managed and value added primary production offers a path to a richer and more environmentally beneficial future. Measures to define environmental quality and, from this, to identify problems, contain damage and reverse adverse trends are developing. And, finally, the challenge of protecting indigenous biodiversity has been accepted and work is underway to develop a New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy.

A lot has been done to recognise our environmental problems. Core institutions have been put in place to deal with them and legislative frameworks such as the Resource Management Act are based on the notion of ecological sustainability. Work is underway to deal with the big issue of managing the risks to the environment including developing an understanding of the comparative risks that different issues pose. New Zealanders are well placed to develop a constructive and beneficial relationship between the indigenous and human-induced environments.

There are clearly many environmental quality problems ahead and, with them, challenges for all New Zealanders-rural land users and urban dwellers alike. Encouraging the re-establishment of indigenous biodiversity back through and alongside the monocultures of modified New Zealand remains the biggest challenge of all. Measures to reduce non-point source (diffuse) pollution and to increase the sustainable use of land are also very important. With the support and action of those who produce our fibre, food and fish, we should improve the state of our environment. Hopefully, the path from here on will keep the pendulum of change swinging back to a better and more sustainable balance between the indigenous and the modified, between the old and the new.

A key to all these actions, however, will be better, timely and systematic information that increases our awareness of the environment, shows us the improved environmental results we are achieving using our environmental legislation and helps us focus on areas where we need greater collaborative effort to achieve our goals.