How we 'denature' nature


The fact that a 'drain' is a 'waterway' first occurred to me when I was in my late 20s, when I worked in an industrial part of Christchurch. I worked at an electronics company with a long, proud history in Canterbury - Tait Electronics. The site straddled a waterway, and all-too-frequently substances of diverse hues and characteristics from metallic, to oily, to glow-in-the dark could be seen floating on the surface of its tenuously flowing water. Dead ducks and ducklings sometimes added dramatic effect to the composition.

Probably, if it wasn't for a man called Ray Vickers, the endearingly cantankerous man in charge of quality control at Tait Electronics, regarded with some trepidation by many of its staff, I probably would not have looked twice at the waterway as I crossed the pedestrian bridge to the main office each day. It was a drain, after all. But the technicoloured discharges angered Ray Vickers and he was constantly on the phone to the council badgering them to track down the culprits of the latest irruption - we suspected a panel beater, but frankly, it could have been any one of the numerous businesses in the area. I remember at the time a member of council staff explaining the delineation of responsibility when it came to urban waterways: it was explained that a 'man-made waterway' was the city council's responsibility, while a natural stream or river was the regional council's. The fact that ALL waterways - whether natural, unnatural, theoretically natural but modified beyond any modicum of naturalness - all lead to the same place, the sea, seemed to be beyond the comprehension of this incurably bureaucratic way of compartmentalising the world.

Since then I have thought a lot about my attitude to this urban waterway - and I suspect the attitude of many of us. Ever since Europeans settled in New Zealand, we have straightened, piped, and otherwise modified countless streams - particularly in urban areas. By doing so, they become less like 'streams' and more like 'drains'. In this way, whether consciously or not, we have 'denatured' nature - making it more justifiable to treat it, not like nature, but like a mechanism - in this case, to get rid of waste. In the 1880s, we did this through legislation, the Gold Fields Amendment Act of 1875 allowed the government to proclaim any stream or river as a 'sludge channel' (yes, a sludge channel) for disposing of mining waste. (Read more about the history of rivers in New Zealand's Rivers: An Environmental History)

As I see it, the 'denaturing' of nature in this way is a convenient way to justify behaviours that we might otherwise consider unacceptable; it is the environmental equivalent of the dehumanising of Jews in Nazi-infested Europe, and of refugees in detainment centres today. By doing this - seeing people as sub-human - we can rationalise treating them in a way we would never dream of treating friends, family or people in our own community. To me, the lesson is that we must be ever-alert to the way we modify our perception of the world to accommodate behaviours that would otherwise be reprehensible...

Cripes - this is all a bit heavy ... time for a break. A cup of tea with a splash of nice, fresh milk made available by the extermination of a bobby calf, anyone?

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