Conservation: Extinction Wave or Healing Tide?

By Geoff Park

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Time is of the essence. At the start of the new millennium, 2020 seemed well off into the future. Yet in nature’s terms it is but a moment. Rewinding the tape of history back the same period of time from now brings me to a world without laptops and in which a cellphone was a novelty.


Winding it back the same distance again and I get to my childhood in a world with half as many people, but many more forests and wetlands; the beginning of the era in which the speediest destruction of the world’s natural ecosystems has taken place. And has been predicted to double again by 2035. Earth’s human population will be near eight billion by 2020. Can human numbers actually get that high? Does the planet have the resources to sustain them? Or will nature’s ruthless laws deal, as they eventually do, with exponential population growth of that kind? Are they correct, those gloomy prophets who allege that our species is causing the ‘end of nature’? In the great saga of humanity’s spread across the globe, New Zealand is distinguished as the last occupiable landmass to be reached. That is what makes the conservation of nature here so important. Nowhere else on Earth are there ecosystems whose evolution has been quite so separate from our species’ evolution. Ecosystems that still exist as though we don’t.

There is, of course a flip side to such seclusion from as assertive a species as us: few countries’ native ecosystems have been so comprehensively ravaged by a single new species, or have had such a high proportion of their native species rendered extinct or nearly so, in such a brief space of time as has New Zealand’s. In biological terms, humans are just another invasive species expanding into space we couldn’t previously reach and exploit, out-competing those who were there before us, building our numbers up slowly at first and then exponentially. An even more spectacularly growing invasive species entering new space in New Zealand is the Australian brush-tailed possum. Estimated at over 70 million today, its population has more than doubled since the late 1970s.

tarwhirinui_1.jpgOne of my most compelling memories of becoming an ecologist was when, as a teenager in 1963, I took part in a study of the kamahi forest on the lower western slopes of Mt. Taranaki. I was struck by the forest’s sprawl around the great mountain and the sense of being in a vast dark room. As each day in the forest ended and we walked towards the park edge and the setting sun, shafts of light appeared between the trees. It was still like that when I returned in 1969. But when I next saw it with my son, Tim, 26 years later, any prospect of reliving that teenage experience had vanished. It was a forest no longer. What 1988’s Cyclone Bola hadn’t taken of the spreading kamahi trees had been eaten away by possums. In the same brief span of a quarter-century, a century before, we converted almost all of New Zealand’s plains from lowland forest and wetlands to pasture and towns. We have since dammed most of our major rivers and totally altered their ecology. The foreign animals and plants that we introduced in the years we endeavoured to recreate New Zealand as ‘the Britain of the South’ have spread through the entire country and threatened the living of many native species. Inevitably, the coming quarter-century to the 2020s will bring more changes of that kind.

The conservation movement in New Zealand is no more stable than the landscapes in which it operates. Over the same quarter-century, the conservation imperative has shifted from preserving scenery and town water catchments to preserving endangered bird species, wilderness and representative samples of the diversity of ecosystems and landscapes. Do we continue on this erratic path, or develop a consistent, long-term approach?

One of the key words in conservation at the start of the new millennium - ‘biodiversity’ - was not even in our vocabulary a quarter-century ago. Biodiversity spans everything from the control of pest animals to purchases of ecologically significant but unprotected land. But the core of it - the rescue philosophy, the recovery plans - is focused on what most people understand biodiversity to be about: individual endangered species. Yet the international conservation literature is beginning to abound with ecologist opinion that we cannot even come close to attaining protection for existing biological diversity, let alone sustaining its protection, if we focus our efforts on species. The only way to conserve the overwhelming mass of biodiversity is to adopt larger-scale approaches at the levels of ecosystems and landscapes. The immediate problem for biodiversity in most of New Zealand’s threatened ecosystems is not so much that we humans now live in them and have reduced their indigenous qualities to tiny remnants, but how central to the New Zealand way of life we have made private land and individual property rights. New Zealand may be pictured by two types of map. The first map displays the land’s physical shape and content, its water catchments and vegetation cover. The second map outlines the patterns of human settlement and transportation routes, together with the boundaries of land ownership.

Superimposing one map on the other, we see how New Zealand’s mountainous country is protected in reserves and is in its natural state, but that its lowlands are almost entirely privately owned and farmed. Yet plant seeds blown on the wind and birds flying cross country don’t confine themselves inside the boundaries of the protected pieces. Biodiversity involves ecosystems and all land and water. To conserve the country’s native ecosystems and species, and restore what was lost to history, future New Zealanders will need have ecosystem stewardship systems that reach across all ownerships, public and private; that recognise natural boundaries, not just human ones. Holding what’s left of threatened ecosystems and supplementing this by restoration will require a high level of community interaction - something we are not yet good at, and by 2020 we may still not be, unless we decide to adopt a major shift in attitudes and practice. The last few decades in New Zealand have been an era of open-market economics and diminishing government intervention in the way we inhabit our chosen place. They’ve been a time, too, of lessening acceptance of being told how to live in it by someone else who values it in ways we don’t. This trend could likely intensify rather than ebb by the year 2020. In the process, things could be very tough for conservation.

Ecology, with its counsel that all land should be cared for as though it belongs to everyone, is called the subversive science. Its philosophers, like Thomas Berry, believe that Western civilisation, with its aggressive, plundering, male domination is declining and that we are now entering an ecological era with more nurturing, feminine qualities. From it, what Theodore Roszak calls ‘an ecologically informed vision of biospheric wholeness’ is emerging. In New Zealand’s modern culture, no task is more central, more paramount, to Roszak’s objective than ecological education that pushes ecologically disruptive land uses outside the bounds of private ownership rights; helping landowners see the harm they can cause and the scale and cost of the patch-up; designing and implementing the patch-up, the restoration effort; helping planning authorities and judges to see how nature’s ecosystems work - how one parcel of land is inevitably linked to the next, and how far and wide ecological processes can spread the ripples of a particular land use.

New Zealand’s Resource Management Act of 1990 has the potential to give a legislative base to ecosystems, life-support systems and their sustainability. The next quarter-century through to 2020 will reveal whether, in the reality of land-use decision-making, such a radical shift from the ethics of private land rights, on which New Zealand was founded as a British agricultural colony, can itself be sustained.
Is it possible, Roszak asks, that the personal and the planetary are pointing the way towards some new basis for sustainable economic and emotional life that, until now, our preoccupations with growth and technology have prevented? Until just a few years ago, the possibility would have gone unrecognised. Environmentalists, preoccupied with preserving the wild and indigenous against humanity’s exploitative demands, have gone about their organising, agitating and educating without much thought to the prospect that the real work is with ourselves; that behind the human love of nature lies the potential for a more sustainable psychology.

But can the anger and negativity of blaming and shaming that are so pervasive in the conservation movement be converted, in time, into the co-operative energy needed to bring a new, more sustainable living with nature about? Richard Leakey believes that what is about to happen to the life of the world is unprecedented. We are, he says, on the brink of a major spasm of biological extinction. It has had its equivalent before in the three to five billion years of life on Earth - five times, in fact. But this time the cause is not alterations in the global climate or an asteroid strike, but a species, Homo sapiens. Humankind now consumes a staggering 40% of all the productive capacity of the Earth’s biota. It also confines itself to cultivating a very narrow band of plant species - a mere seven of which provide 90% of our diet - making us highly vulnerable to diseases that affect these species. By 2020, if the trends in alteration of the world’s ecosystems continue, we will be only a generation away from the date (2050) when over half of today’s existing species are predicted to be extinct.

Madhav Gadgil, an Indian ecologist, fears a prospect even more frightening, within our psyche: the ancient, biblical, imperative to own and control the other species with which we share the planet. As a culmination of this process, he thinks, the world is entering a new phase as, with the advent of molecular biology, humans learn how to create an entirely new kind of artefact: the genetically engineered and corporately owned living organism. Many New Zealand landscapes are already dominated by genetically engineered plants, and if the Californian coastal pine Pinus radiata continues to be the economic force it has become, living alongside plantations of cloned, genetically identical trees could become so much more part of our life.
Paralleling the international treaties to protect humans from the new biota that they, but not nature have engineered, have been global agreements to stem the tide of species extinction. When the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity and GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) revealed the power of corporations relative to the store of natural biodiversity that is their raw material, they aroused the fears of indigenous people worldwide at what they could lose. Aotearoa’s indigenous people have been particularly active in the debate. Mãori have recognised biodiversity as a taonga and thus an issue of sovereignty under the Treaty of Waitangi, and laid claim to the indigenous flora and fauna. Like the booming tourist traffic through our primeval forests and fiords, the effect that this will have on biodiversity conservation over the next few decades is something we have not faced before.

New Zealanders’ ‘conservation estate’ of scenic and scientific reserves, National Parks and nature reserves is built on essentially Eurocentric concepts, and the parallel subjugation of Mãori environmental knowledge. An integral aspect of the colonial project, its legal root is English common law. Those who foresee things remaining that way should not fantasise that Mãori insistence that Aotearoa’s forests and birds are taonga, and theirs by reason of the Treaty of Waitangi, is a temporary circumstance. And will Polynesia’s other contributory cultures - Tokelauan, Tongan, Samoan, Nuiean - seek in conservation what they seek now in broadcasting and education? Will the current pace of immigration from Asian countries bring with it, by 2020, influences on conservation as well as the economy?

Part of New Zealanders’ difficulty in confronting the future of conservation is that, as we have always thought of New Zealand as Utopia, we think on too grand a scale. Nor are we very good at developing conservation strategies that do not ride roughshod over the country’s natural and cultural diversity. How do we make conservation meaningful for the manifold cultures now living in New Zealand without discarding the cherished successes from its years as a much simpler, and prevailingly British, colonial, culture? One thing is for sure: many more New Zealanders love and belong to their places and what nature intended for these places than they did 25 years ago. And more will be expressing that sense of place by 2020.

I don’t know if it is possible to love an ecosystem, but I am confident that the rediscovery, restoration and reconnection I sense going on at present will be stronger in 2020 than now, and that, more than ever before, what we call ‘conservation’ might be happening less by government intervention than via simple citizenship: what Jacquetta Hawkes once described as “a patient and increasingly skilful love-making that [persuades] the land to flourish”. It will need, for one thing, a different kind of conservation movement than we have now. What the Californian philosopher of ecology Gary Snyder calls finding our place and digging in.

This article was commissioned by the New Zealand Futures Trust and published in Our Country Our Choices; He tumanako mo te tau rua mano rua tekau; Prospects for 2020, Government Publications Ltd, Wellington, 1997 and in Geoff Park, Theatre Country, Essays on Landscape & Whenua, Victoria University Press (2006). It has been revised and updated for inclusion here.


Editor’s Note: In his 1994 prophetic book Vision 2020: Reordering Chaos for Global Survival, Ervin Laszlo catalogues the crises facing humanity and argues for a holistic approach to education, the environment, and political economic systems to avoid the demise of human existence. His theories has since been adopted by many Nation States and political organisations. The OECD Environmental Outlook provides projections of environmental pressures and changes in the environment to the year 2020. When Laszlo wrote his book, 2020 seemed like a remote future. Here, New Zealand’s well known author, ecologist and research scientist Geoff Park reflects on the same issues and points to some key strategies that are needed to resolve the problems that we face.