How environmental history can help shift debate beyond the 'blame game'


The next question I have been asked is "Why is it important to understand the history of our relationship with rivers?"

There are many reasons, but one of the most important is that environmental history can help depoliticize the issues around our rivers (political with a little 'p' rather than a big 'p') - thereby placing the discussion on an even keel. Far too much of the discussion around environmental issues in New Zealand has revolved around assigning blame - it will be a sign of maturity when New Zealanders can discuss a major environmental issue such as freshwater degradation without first spending a decade or more arguing over the apportionment of responsibility, rather than getting on with the job of addressing the problem itself.

When presenting these histories, I am very careful to be non-judgmental - actions and decisions that were taken in the past we may see as indefensible today, but they occurred in very different social, economic and political contexts to the present day. To cite a non-river example, pioneering farmers who settled in New Zealand burned and cut swathes of native forest to convert the land into pasture. Their actions were not driven by any ideology or hatred for forest - rather they were driven by a desperate struggle to carve a living from the land. That does not make the loss of most of our lowland forests any less regrettable today, but it does make it more understandable.

To get back to the question of politics. When engaging with environmental history we will soon realise that any assumptions we had around 'the left' or 'the right' or 'farmers' or the like will go out the window. So for instance, it was the proposal to build a hydro dam on the stunningly beautiful Lake Manapouri to power a foreign-owned aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point that sparked off the environmental movement in New Zealand. We might assume that this was one of Muldoon's Think Big projects (and, yes, it ended up that way), but it was Walter Nash's Labour government that signed the original agreement with Comalco, which gave the company exclusive rights to the water and allowed for the construction of a massive dam on the lake, in violation of the National Parks Act. 'Environment' was not a consideration back then, but jobs and economic prosperity were. Jobs for working class men were a particular priority for Labour governments - and hydro schemes were great for keeping lots of men in work.

We may also assume that the introduction of the Wild Rivers legislation that allowed water conservation orders to be made over rivers was an initiative of a government with a flash of environmental conscience. Who would have guessed this was the work of Muldoon's National Government, sandwiched in between the colossal and highly controversial Clyde Dam and a string of other ill-considered energy projects?

Who would have thought too that it was farmers' complaints about the effects of goldmining waste on rivers which led to the first Rivers Commissions in the early 20th century, to investigate and propose remediation measures for rivers affected by human actions?

We soon see that few have been blameless when it comes to the degradation of rivers or

their ecosystems - nor is any one group completely devoid of virtue (case in point: the Muldoon Government's Wild Rivers legislation). Once we are aware of this history, we soon realise that it is ill-advised to point the finger - as we may find that it can easily be pointed back at 'us' (whoever 'we' may be). This underlines the point that blame plays no useful part in the discussion and resolution of the environmental issues we face, and I hope that environmental histories such as New Zealand's Rivers will play an important role in helping us to recognise this and shift our conversations about rivers, fresh water and other environmental issues to a more constructive and solutions-focused place. (Noting that for this to happen we need the open and honest exchange of information, unadulterated by political (little p) manipulation - whatever those politics are.)

Photo top: The braids of the Rakaia River by Geoff Leeming.

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