Gambling with nature’s tolerance

Al Morrison, the director general of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation — the government body that manages about one-third of the country’s land area, from World Heritage temperate rainforest in the south to kauri forests in the north (not to mention running world-class efforts to conserve endangered native species such as the kakapo and tuatara) — gave a remarkable speech to Lincoln University last week. It was brave, far-sighted and touched so many right notes that it brought a bright little melody to my weekend reading.

Morrison was giving the university’s 12th annual State of the Nation’s Environment Address, and took the opportunity to discuss the pursuit of economic growth above all else in a country where conservation is a major contributor to that economy. Here are some of the highlights, but the whole thing is well worth a read:

Morrison considers the message from the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment:

We are degrading ecosystems and destroying species to a point where the services that nature provides, that we rely on for our sustenance, and that determine our prosperity, are being run down and out.

If we are to save ourselves from ourselves, then appealing to the intrinsic value of nature is not enough. It is not a matter of giving up that sense of awesome wonder, but rather adding to that, an argument designed to compel the uncommitted.

He explores the case for business to play a role in conservation in its widest sense.

It may seem crass to say that climate change and it’s big cousin, biodiversity loss, create a potential competitive advantage for New Zealand. But connecting the ethics and the self-interest; intrinsic value and economic benefits, helps us better understand that sustainable management of natural resources is not just about nice things to do when time and discretionary resources are available.

It is a necessary investment in the natural capital that sits at the base of our economy. Water, soil, air, nutrient cycles, climate regulation, pollination…these and other services are the natural capital we need to survive and prosper. That reality turns on its head the received wisdom that only rich counties can afford clean environments.

The way we measure economic progress is broken:

When the current recession revealed a collapsing financial system, some 12 trillion dollars was found in quick time across the globe to prop it up. But when nations met at Copenhagen to try and restore a collapsing environmental system, the cupboard was apparently all but bare.

Therein lies the nub of the problem.

The way we conventionally describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use and management, and capture the benefits and subsidies from that with a clear conscience.

We need to move beyond GDP as the measure of the real economy, and beyond growth as the only goal:

If GDP is failing as a measure of environmental sustainability then surely that is a powerful incentive to find a new construct that measures true progress.

It is no easy task to build one. First base is to balance economic, social and environmental considerations and reach a pragmatic compromise. But that’s far from a home run. Living in harmony with nature’s systems; living sustainably, is not apart from the economy, it is a key component of it. Nature’s systems lie at the base of any economy. If they are not functioning efficiently, then the economy cannot function efficiently. If we destroy them, we destroy the economy.

So like or not, our future is inextricably linked to how we tread on our land and oceans, and manage the natural resources that are the key to our surviving and thriving.

And finally:

But there is a lot of work to do to make this a prosperous path for New Zealand. It will require radical change in public policy and management, economic thinking, and business practice. I see enough activity to make me optimistic, but no real sense of urgency. We are still gambling with nature’s tolerance.

It was a brave speech by a senior civil servant who reports to a government committed to growing New Zealand’s by all means possible — including more exploration for oil and mineral resources in the conservation estate. It shows an awareness of the real issues that confront New Zealand and the world, something that seems to be all too uncommon in government anywhere. If you read nothing else today, read Morrison’s speech.

Morrison quoted poet Brian Turner at the beginning of his address, but the Otago poet’s words also make a fitting conclusion.

Under Mt St Bathans

There is majesty in the mass

Light moves, tints the snow;

The wind shakes the sparse grasses;

Water runs, stones rattle unexpectedly

And the land speaks;

None of us are greatly different,

We’re ordinary more than extraordinary

Most of the time. And if there’s one word

For what the sun highlights on the hills,

One word that we should apprehend

And make our own, it is

Decency: and, what’s ever implacable,

And what stone has irreducibly,


From: Into The Wider World by Brian Turner

For some reactions to Morrison’s speech, see this piece by David Williams in The Press.

63 thoughts on “Gambling with nature’s tolerance”

  1. It may seem crass to say that climate change and it’s [sic] big cousin, biodiversity loss

    I see another one jumping on the biodiversity bandwagon.

    The next gravy train is arriving at the station, platform 1.

  2. John D, if you think biodiversity is a ‘bandwagon’ may I suggest you read David Quammen’s book ‘The Song of the Dodo’? It certainly sharpened up my views on the subject and made them better informed.
    Gareth – I totally agree about Al Morrison’s speech – it was brave and remarkable.
    My only quibble here is that I wish Brian Turner and co were a little more open minded about wind energy, though I’ll add that I really like and admire his writing.

  3. I am not undermining the importance of biodiversity loss, Carol.
    it’s just that I have observed the new media interest in the topic, as they apparently back away from the awkward issue of climate change.

    I also find it amusing to hear a public servant in a senior position lecturing us about the levels of debt in this country.

    1. Well it is the UN designated International Year of Biodiversity and global governments did make commitments to protect and restore biodiversity, and the biennial meeting by the Convention on Biodiversity is starting this month in Tokyo.

  4. From where I sit I look over the local estuary and every year the mud flats get larger. Having cut down all the trees we are now allowing the top soil to be washed away and filling the bays with mud. Authorities, farmers and developers do not realise the huge damage that continues to be done needlessly and which can be controlled with liitle cost.
    Saving the parks is good but the rest needs looking after as well.

  5. First post:

    I see another one jumping on the biodiversity bandwagon.
    The next gravy train is arriving at the station, platform 1.

    Second post:

    I am not undermining the importance of biodiversity loss.

    I don’t think much more need be said.

    John, is it fair to say you’re not in the sciences? I am fascinated by the perception that they’re full of government-funded ‘gravy trains’ – a nonsensical belief for anyone who’s ever known actual researchers. ‘Endless competitive slog to obtain limited funding’ seems a better description to me.

  6. “…took the opportunity to discuss the pursuit of economic growth above all else in a country …”
    In what planet is he? NZ has never pursued economic growth above all else. We have declined from one of the richest countries Per cap 50 years ago to barely clinging to 1st world status by our fingertips, and are borrowing $1B per month to maintain living standards. And when it is suggested that we extract some of the $Bss of mineral wealth under conservation land it is immediately squashed.

    1. Probably because

      1 it was uncertain that there is $Bs under the estate. The estimates are back of envelope and optimistic.

      2 Only Sch 4 is the issue not the rest of the estate. Some things are too important and fragile

      3 What makes you think that exploiting mineral wealth will make difference. The decline of the 1860-70s gold rush left NZ bereft as the money was shunted out to good old blighty. It was only the move to exported frozen meat that pulled NZ out of the ditch. I don’t think it will be NZ owned mining companies that will be doing most of the investing and profit taking this time either.

      1. His point was we have not taken the “pursuit of economic growth above all else in a country”.

        As you say, “Some things are too important and fragile”

      2. Yes NZ’s status as a 1st world nation is important…and fragile.
        Unlike our natural environment which has proved remarkable resilient at rebounding from aeons of glaciations, puroclastic flows, tectonic uplift and erosion. This is not about preserving a tiny fraction of native forest from temporary disruption, but is preservationist absolutism regardless of the opportunity cost, with his public bullhorn funded by me.

        1. man, you do love the sound of your own histrionics, don’t you?

          last time I checked NZ was still importing flat screens so I don’t think we’re quite 3rd world just yet, however, you’ve clearly missed the point if you think the subtext of this speech is “preservationist absolutism” (ha ha you make me laugh). to me it seems clear that it’s actually a call for recognition of our environment’s position as the basis for practically all our economic prosperity and recognition that in damaging it we seriously harm our future (and our children’s children’s future) chances of prosperity.

          you may be right that our natural environment is resilient, but it’s ability to support a growing population of growth-obsessed consumers is probably a lot more fragile than you imagine.

        2. Widespread environmental change over a single human lifetime is something which environmental systems manifestly cannot cope with. Glaciation, “pyroclastic flows”, tectonic uplift and erosion are all either slow, or localized events. The are not a good analogy for the continuing rapid and accelerating series of stresses humans have placed on the environment in this country (and around the world) over the last century and a half, and in the last 50 years particularly. Considering the degree to which we have and are changing the composition of the atmosphere and the number of species we have knocked off already on a geological time scale the holocene will look like the impact that killed the dinosaurs.

        1. It is because of the “Wrathall equivalents in the 1860s” that we have an economy above that of Papua New Guinea. It was resource extraction that built the great egalitarian society that allowed its citizens the social surplus to care for its environment. However the pendulum has now swung definatively too far.

  7. John, is it fair to say you’re not in the sciences?
    I work in IT. I have worked with DOC as a client.

    I am fascinated by the perception that they’re full of government-funded ‘gravy trains’

    Well it worked for climate change didn’t it? Isn’t this the biggest scientific gravy train ever?

    1. So your answer is ‘no’.

      (And I’m a photographer for our Department of Environment and Heritage. It doesn’t count as knowing actual researchers and what they do. I have worked very specifically with scientists, but that’s involved running the revegetation component of an integrated pest management research program with a team of entomologists. That does count.)

      And my answer to you is ‘no’. And ‘no’.

      1. To add to this: The real gravy train is the one YOU and we all are sitting in. It is streaming along fueled by our one-off inheritance of fossil fuels, gaining size and weight exponentially and gathering speed. It puts out an equally exponentially growing heap of garbage and is eating its way exponentially into the remaining wilderness of this planet. It is gathering speed while the end of its tracks is getting neigh, very neigh indeed.

        In order to continue its gathering race while the first class passengers gorging themselves like Bacchus it would need to devour three planets Earth today, 6 soon, 12 soon thereafter…. Exponential growth has this ugly habit….

        So what do you say? Jump of the Gravy train? Pull the break? Ask somebody up front where actually this is heading? If this journey has a plan, a purpose, a chance to succeed? Anybody actually in the locomotive of the darn thing???

        John D you are in IT, so then exponential growth is comprehensible.
        If you had invested one Cent at the year zero at an interest rate of 7%pa, what would you have today, 2010 years later? How many Kg, tons of Gold would it be? Just take a wild guess before you Google it or do a calculation.
        I leave it for you to post the answer here.

        1. Thomas,
          I understand your earnestness.

          However, the reality is that we are going to run out of money.

          Very soon, in fact.

          Take this, for example

          “Exclusive: EU’s Oettinger plans 1 trillion euro energy revamp”

          Where do you imagine Europe is going to find 1 trillion Euro in the next 10 years? Hospitals and schools are already closing down because of “austerity” measures.

          As Steve Wathall has pointed out, NZ’s debt is increasing as $1billion a month

          This is not sustainable.

          1. Money is virtual!

            Imagine this dialog:

            Fisher: I need potatoes for my meal but have a fish!
            Farmer: I like a fish for my meal and can offer potatoes!
            Fisher: But I have no money!
            Farmer: Sucks I am broke to, not a dime in my pocket!

            Both go home sulking as obviously neither can buy a thing from the other because neither has a little green piece of paper which obviously you need…..

            No John, not doing the right thing because of some digits on some computer in some bank account is simply childish nonsense. When monetary systems have gone out of control we had monetary reform. My grandmother showed me letters posted in the German depression. One was basically covered in 1 Billion Mark stamps. Thats right about a dozen stamps on one letter each worth 1 Billion Marks….. nonsense….
            You will loose your savings account and I will loose mine. Next day we are both back in business because all debt has gone. I know you will be good for your word and I will be good for mine. Beats going to the wall in a train without a driver destroying the planet in the process because nobody had some little green notes to pay the driver to pull the brake…..

            Lets get real!

            1. Ok try to eat it then….(the money)

              The value of money is defined through agreement. We put our faith into the idea that $100 will yield us a value in the future similar to the value we provided when we got the $100. When there are serious problems with that agreement of what the $100 are worth – Zimbabwe, Hyperinflation in the Great Depression, the times we are going into, Pyramid Schemes – then things eventually get arranged newly. Happened many times in the history of our world. The same may well be before us again as those trillions of debt are likely never going to be repaid by anybody unless governments resort to printing worthless paper.

              Only the goods exchanged and the time spend creating these are real.

              I recommend this book to you:

            2. Thomas,
              Let’s imagine that I Iend you $1,000,000

              You cannot repay the loan

              Do we
              (a) Shake hands, have a giggle, and I print some more money

              (b) I take you to a darkened room, cut your fingers off one by one with wire cutters and post them to your nearest and dearest until you pay up.

              Which scenario do you think is more likely?

            3. Oh dear!

              It just then hit me that the WordPress blogging icon making routine choose a fitting image for you John 😉 Did you ever have a close look at the colour and the shape of the thing?

              Never mind the logo. But internationally with the s..t we are in as you rightly pointed out, we can either choose your alternative (b) and have a good old WW III or we do something more civilized. Think what it will be that will enable our world to continue in a meaningful fashion, forget the debt and do the work to enable us to carry on. As I said, my parents generation did just that two times in a row. After the Great Depression and after WW II. And guess what, it was a heck of a lot better then going at each other with pitchforks…..

            4. “I take you to a darkened room, cut your fingers off one by one with wire cutters and post them to your nearest and dearest until you pay up.”

              you can do that if it spins your wheels, but unless you can find someone who’ll pay 100,000 per finger you still won’t be getting your money back.

            5. @ Thomas

              There was no Hyper inflation in the great depression. Inflation would have been very low or even deflation.

            6. I take you to a darkened room, cut your fingers off one by one with wire cutters and post them to your nearest and dearest until you pay up.

              In case you hadn’t noticed or figured, that was my attempt at black humour.

              You know, like blowing up Denier kids in a classroom?

              If you don’t understand that, you need to get out more.

            7. it’s not particularly funny, but my reply is valid whether or not you were serious.

              if you think your (or anyone’s) money has intrinsic value in a world where trillions can be created and destroyed at the whims of world leaders and bank bosses then you are ill-informed.

        2. Ummmmm….. Why would Gold not increase in price over this period as well?

          Here’s a question for you.

          A kilogramme of Gold was 10 Sestertius and you 1 Roman Sestertius back in 1 AD, (There is no such date as Year Zero in the West). You invested your Sestertius at say 5% compounding. Gold increased over this same period at a rate of 5% per year. How much Gold would you get for your money in the year 2001?

  8. “Morrison quoted poet Brian Turner at the beginning of his address, but the Otago poet’s words also make a fitting conclusion…”

    Is that the same Brian Turner who is virilently opposed to clean energy Wind farms in Central Otago

  9. GDP is purely a measure of the sum total of the economic activity in a society. It is therefore totally appropriate to use this when discussing and analysing economics.

    If you want to track other things such as the state of the environment by all means set up other meassure, in fact I believe there are already various indicators that do something similar.

    1. the trouble is though that it takes, for instance, all the money spent by people on petrol to burn while they’re idling in traffic and counts it as if it is in some way of equal societal benefit as an equal amount of money spent on feeding people or building homes.

      it’s like assessing your health by measuring your weight and assuming the more you weigh the healthier you are. if you think that’s appropriate then carry on…

      1. GDP is useful because it is a simple meassure with little or no value judgement associated. As soon as you start applying value judgement then the whole thing becomes messy and essentially meaningless.

        You might think spending money on wasting petrol idling in traffic jams is less important than feeding people or building homes but those people have chosen to spend their money on that. You might want to encourage them to spend their money on things you think are more beneficial but you need to incentivise them rather than just redefining the defintion of economically useful activity.

        I’ll give you an example of why this is a nonsensical idea. Let’s say I’m the supreme benevolent ruler, (scary thought I know), and I decide that individual spiritual development is important for society. As such I decree that from now on GDP will include a spiritual component made up of how many prayers/meditations someone performs over the year. Does anybody think this would make a blind bit of difference to how the vast majority of society would continue to carry out their lives?

        1. Economics came up with ‘simple’ models because they thought they could get the respect of traditional hard sciences that way – and became the ‘dismal science’. Not much respect there.

          And science has moved on from simplistic concepts. They only use the simplest when it is the most appropriate, they don’t usually reduce things to unreal simplicity except in initial thought experiments to get them started on a topic. General economics has pretended to embrace complexity and completeness by using ever more obscure mathematical models, but the fundamental issue remains. It’s shackled by its origins.

          Economics is about real people making decisions in the real world. There’s a lot of cognitive and social science work on how people do this. Very little has trickled through to inform, develop or mature standard economic theories about this.

        2. “you need to incentivise them rather than just redefining the defintion of economically useful activity.”

          and how are effective incentives to be developed without useful means of measuring progress? the fact that GDP has no value judgement attached is exactly it’s weakness. if it is the main measure we use for economic activity and that economic activity mediates all human activity then we are, as a species, going to behave as if heavy=healthy. and guess what: that’s what is happening.

          “I’ll give you an example of why this is a nonsensical idea”

          your example isn’t an analogy of what I’m talking about. it’s just nonsensical.

          my argument is that GDP is a stupid measure for us to be fixated upon as the main measure of progress and I’ve been pretty clear why I think this. it quantifies magnitude but not direction meaning all activity is treated as progress. this seems to me as nonsensical as your botched example.

          to put it plainly: we define progress as GDP growth. all economic activity contributes to GDP growth therefore all economic activity is progress. nonsensical: wars? progress, waste? progress, earthquake? progress….

          1. It’s not just the nature of activities it’s the value attached. Compare the GDP effects of a) buying seeds and growing your veg and flowers fertilised by the chooks that give you your eggs, and b) buying veges, eggs and flowers from your local markets.

            According to standard measures b) is a much more productive arrangement. Most of us would think having guaranteed fresh eggs and crisp veggies at the back door a much better arrangement.

            Economics suffers from the classic measurement problem. Just because you *can* measure things by counting $$, it doesn’t mean that you should. And it certainly gets in the way of devising better valuations of differing social and economic transactions.

          2. Noone is getting fixated on GDP. It is but one yard stick which society meassures success. There are already others out there which fit better in to what people like Al Morrison is wanting, such as the Quality of life index. Promote the use of those instead or create one of your own. Trying to add additional subjective meassures into existing economic indicators like GDP is just idiotic.

        3. GDP certainly contains “value judgements”. By excluding, for instance, environmental externalities it makes a judgement about economic activity’s vulnerablity to those externalities. Equally, by excluding “quality of life” from its metric, it undervalues the very stuff human beings tend to value most.

  10. For all those who believe that economic growth is unimportant I have a question for you.

    How do we fund the growing cost of various services for those people who aren’t providing for themselves, (e.g. elderly, sick, unemployed, etc) without growth?

    Given the demographic profile of much of the developed nations in the world, without adequate returns on investments (i.e. growth) they won’t be able to support the levels of help and assistence they currently do now.

    1. Economic activity is important, but we have to find a way to live within our planetary means. Some kinds of growth may be possible (knowledge, technology etc), but not unlimited resource use.

    2. A recommended meditation Mr. Gosman:
      1) Book a flight to say Samoa (western)
      2) Join a local family for a month. Get over the mossies, the cockroaches that sort of stuff.
      3) Record the family interactions, in the village, in the community.
      4) How are the elderly fairing? How are the kids doing? How much time to they all have for each other?
      5) Rate their lives on a happiness scale.
      6) Tell me then how much GDP they needed to provide this.
      7) Tell me how much GDP we need to provide a system where we shove the elderly into rest homes and the kids into daycare so that we can work more to make more GDP?
      8) Where would you rather grow old? Embedded in your village and family life or staring at the wall 100Km from your folks in a full care sterile plasterboard villa with a call button for the nurse?

      1. What a stupid comparison. If it was correct then answer the following

        1) Why have large numbers of Samoans migrated to NZ and more wish to do so?

        2) Why does the NZ Government provides a large amount of development aid to the island nations if they are all happy with their lot in life?

    3. Oh and for you to the exercise from 101, understanding the concept of perpetual growth.

      Question 1) Why is perpetual growth also called exponential growth?
      Question 2) If you invested 1 cent at the birth of Christ at 7% pa interest, how much would you have today in the year 2010. Express your answer in mass of Gold at $1000 per ounce. Before you calculate make a guess:
      less then 10Kg / 10 Ton / The weight of the Queen Mary 2 / a lot more than that.

      Post your answer here and debate if growth as a concept is sustainable.

      1. ‘ A lot more than that’ if I set up my spreadsheet correctly! This is how one can afford that pricey meal at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe…

        Of course bank fees would crush this hypothetical account within a month, but the point is well made, and the numbers are truly scary! Particularly as you haven’t even made a tenner after the first century.

        The other mental exercise I’ve always liked in this regard is: let’s say a growth of Azolla (a kind of floating water plant) doubles in size every day. Over the course of 30 days a couple of isolated plants has spread out to completely occupy the surface of a particular lake. On which day did the Azolla cover only half the surface? If you were now to remove 3/4 of the plants from the lake, how long would they take to recolonise the entire surface? (It’s this last bit that freaks me out as someone whose work involves managing feral species!…)

          1. I don’t know, am I? I did read ‘Naked Ape to Superspecies’ a few years ago, and who remembers where they first encounter these examples?

            I do know he’s due here in South Australia soon to promote his new book, Legacy. He’s a mate of our state Premier Mike Rann (who’s a graduate of the University of Auckland, I note in passing) and I’d rather like him (David) to tell him (Mike) what he really thinks of Mike’s plan to mine the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary…

    1. Oh, there you are Gosman. I was just wondering when you were going to comment on the Wegman story. I’m sure you want to decry Wegman’s appalling lack of professional integrity, as you are so keen on that sort of thing.

        1. I did check, and couldn’t see you in that thread at all. In fact, across the four threads dealing with the Easterbrook scandal, out of 347 comments in total, you posted exactly one. Yes, 1. And that one didn’t actually address Easterbrook at all anyway.

          As I have commented before, you were very quick to condemn Jones, Mann et al after the email hack, but are curiously reluctant to condemn fraudulent behaviour in sceptics.

          1. I commented on the Wegman thread. I haven’t been around much to comment of the Easterbrook thread but my position is consistent. Bad scientific practice is bad scientific and should be pointed out. It is good to see people doing so.

        2. to whit –

          CTG: I thought at least Gosman would be along to express his disappointment in Easterbrook’s lack of professional integrity.

          BRYAN W: Yes, and I expected a congratulatory comment from Gosman for reviewing ‘The Clean Industrial Revolution’, which clearly doesn’t question economic growth. Perhaps he’s on holiday.

          GOSMAN: Give me a chance Bryan 😉 I was going to do that a couple of days ago to be honest but my wife has had me busy doing stuff around the house while I am off work for a couple of weeks.

          Is there something we missed?

  11. Reply to John D: comment 21 – reply button not working.

    Neither, I suggest you (c) bundle the loan up with a bunch of other toxic loans and onsell it to some other sucker


    (d) pay yourself a fat bonus and resign(*) just before the proverbial hits the fan. (*) Receiving a fabulous golden handshake from “grateful to see you gone” share-holders in the process.

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