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What is at the root of our most serious environmental problems?

I have been reading Max Harris' much acclaimed book The New Zealand Project (BWB Books, 2017). Harris believes that to face the major challenges that face New Zealand - economic, social and environmental - we need 'a values-based approach to power and society'. Harris is unashamedly idealistic, and the key values he references are 'care, community and creativity'. Being more of a rationalistic-slash-pragmatic bent than an idealistic one, I at first struggled a little with how these values could realistically be applied in politics and policy-making.

But then I recalled Sir Geoffrey Palmer interview with Guyon Espiner as part of the excellent 9th Floor Series, and I realised that Sir Geoffrey was articulating much the same argument, but in different words. On the state of political leadership in New Zealand today, Sir Geoffrey lamented the failure of recent governments to face up to the monumental challenges that this country faces - challenges such as climate change, which have the potential to be catastrophic, both economically and environmentally. At the root of this failure, Sir Geoffrey suggests, is the desire of politicians to remain in power above all else, rather than "doing the right thing to save the country from suffering... it is failure to have sufficient regard to the future, and looking only at the immediacy of the next election."

And what has caused this shift - one in which government has become dominated by politicians more interested in power than principles? Sir Geoffrey blames public opinion polling. In Sir Geoffrey's words:

"Public opinion polling is destroying politics... [It has led to a situation where] there are no conviction politicians left as far as I can see. There are no longer any people who believe in anything ... if they do believe in anything they don’t articulate it. They read the public opinion poll and adjust the policy - you will never get anywhere that way."

And, when we look at all the major environmental issues we face in New Zealand - freshwater degradation, climate change, biodiversity loss, and loss of our most fertile soils - it is this, the failure to take decisive action for a fear of its impact on opinion polls, that is at the root them all.

Over the long term, with more young thinkers and influencers like Max Harris on the political and academic scene, there may be hope for a political landscape characterised by politicians who put principles before popularity. But many of the environmental (and other) issues we face are too urgent to wait for this shift to happen. We need effective interventions to address the serious issues New Zealand faces now. How can we get this to happen? The answer lies in the New Zealand public holding elected representatives accountable. To do this, however, knowledge is key. We need to understand the issues and what politicians propose to do to address them. Many issues, such as climate change and freshwater quality are very technical, and much more needs to be done to communicate these issues in ways that ordinary people can understand them. If only a small subset of New Zealanders fully understand what is going on in our country, we cannot say we have true democracy.

This is a strong motivation behind the book I am currently working on. It aims to help New Zealanders understand how we got to the situation we are in today environmentally, and what needs to change for us to address the enormous environmental challenges we face today.

Photo top: A protest in Timaru about the management of fresh water, March 2017. Copyright: Tetsuro Mitomo/Fairfax NZ

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