Finn takes a look at the sorry state of our rivers, how they got to be this way, and whether New Zealand could ever do justice to its claim to be ‘100% pure’. It turns out when you talk about rivers you talk a lot about dairy.
However you like to think about this weird country that most of us live in, whether it’s as a land of too many vain, idiot prime ministers; or not enough weed; or with heaps of really good rugby players; or with heaps of kids living in poverty; the one thing that seems to be at the bottom of everything is the idea that at least we’re living in clean, green New Zealand. The mentality of those dirty colonisers has stuck with us. Escaping that sooty shithole of London back in the day, they sat through months-long boat rides in hopes of arriving somewhere with some space and maybe a bit of nature. Onboard, other depressed Britons would be carking it left right and centre, so the alive ones would close their eyes and hug their knees, muttering “land of milk and honey… land of milk and honey…” until they vomited themselves to sleep. When they finally got here, they were unwilling to let go of the clean, green dream that had got them through, even as they promptly went about turning as much of the land as possible into civilised, London-style settlements. They probably said stuff like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t cut down all the trees, wouldn’t it be nice to save a few to remind us how beautiful nature is?” Meanwhile the Māori who had already been here for hundreds of years, and had figured out early on that you can get literally everything your body and soul needs from living with the land, were in for a very rude awakening and a stern lesson in classical economics.
If you’re overseas and anyone finds out you’re a New Zealander, it’s the backdrops from the Lord of the Rings that they’ll get really excited about. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” they might say. “It’s so beautiful.” If you want to be real for a second, you might reply “yeah the American film versions of the English fantasy novels really got to the core of what New Zealand is all about,” but they probably will just think you’re a wanker. Even in the last few enclaves of the world where the slimy tendrils of that nerdgasmic trilogy haven’t reached, it is New Zealand’s reputation as a high-end producer of dairy and meat products (thanks to the “clean, green” thing, and our charming tradition of feeding our cows and sheep on grass year-round) that you’ll hear about. When I was in Peru and I mentioned New Zealand, a guy who was trying to sell me something started saying “Milk! Milk!” (Actually his English wasn’t that great, and he wasn’t pronouncing the “k,” so it sounded more like “mill!” but when he mimed massaging a teat into a glass and then drinking it, I got the message).
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But the reality is it’s all too good to be true. Our environment is in a truly shocking state, particularly our incredibly vital freshwater stocks, and it’s basically all the fault of that thing that the man from Peru knew us for—dairy.
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In more recent years, the colonists’ pride was translated into a much pithier, catchier slogan, that has been used to market us as a tourist destination since 1999: 100% Pure New Zealand. (Except the slash in the % sign is replaced with the islands of New Zealand, which have roughly the same shape. Clever, eh?). It has taken heat a couple of times since it was implemented, from anyone curious enough to dig into it. A few years ago a Daily Mail feature ran under the headline “New Zealand’s green claims are pure manure.” Sparked by the botulism scare at Fonterra that caused a wide-scale product recall, the writer of the article took the opportunity to pick our reputation into tiny little pieces, calling us out on our terrible record of preserving and managing our natural environments, and our desperate pandering to the dairy sector (though, being the Daily Mail, the general sentiment in the comments is something like “well maybe if they stopped handing out benefits to the lazy poor, there’d be more money to clean up the environment with”). A couple of years before that, back when half-man, half-diseased-eel John Key used to play along with the idea of political accountability, he appeared on the BBC interview show HARDtalk for twenty-five minutes of hard talk with BBC hard man, Stephen Sackur. Sackur puts it to Key that maybe, in spite of the emphatic marketing slogans, New Zealand isn’t literally one hundred percent pure after all. The hard man brings up claims from Massey environmental scientist Dr Mike Joy that our rivers and lakes are considerably more polluted than we like to say they are, and that more and more of the animals that live in those rivers are at risk of extinction, but Key displays an infuriating misunderstanding of how science works, and remarks “well that might be Mike Joy’s view, but I don’t share that view.” When Sackur does a double take and points out “yeah, but… he’s a scientist,” Key informs him that, actually, “he’s one academic, and like lawyers I can provide you with another one who can give you a counter view.” Interestingly, five years on from that interview, there is still no sign of this fabled “other” academic, who is prepared to put their name to something that counters Joy’s thoroughly researched claims, and assert that, somehow, things aren’t actually dying faster than ever. Key’s denial reeks of the induced blindness of climate change non-believers, who are willing to dismiss a huge expanse of scientific proof in order to protect the interests of say, the oil or mining companies that they depend on.
Key’s fear is for our $13.7 billion dairy industry. Taking up around 20% of our exports, dairy is a big chunk of our GDP and an increasingly shaky part of our economy (one of the only things the government wanted to get out of the TPPA was lower tariffs for dairy exports). So not wanting to rock the economic boat or upset the agricultural voting bloc, Key and his ministers have steered well clear of finger pointing, in spite of the shit heap of evidence. But, dairy has never been a particularly profitable industry, with farmers kept in a basically constant anxiety about wildly fluctuating milk prices, on top of droughts, and floods, etc. Though farmers here don’t receive cash subsidies anymore, the government subsidises them in another way: by picking up the tab for the extensive environmental damage that farms cause (or, more often, legislatively ignoring it). Key has an interest in playing down the state of our lakes and rivers, because if the burden of the environmental clean-up was placed on those actually responsible for the damage, the dairy industry would dry up overnight.
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Dr Joy’s book Polluted Inheritance (BWB Texts) is a plainly written but powerful overview of our current freshwater crisis, detailing the many problems dairying causes in our environment. There is the familiar cows-shitting-in-the-river complaint (a major contributor to New Zealand’s world-leadingly high rates of bacterial infection), as well as the cows-pissing-on-the-land point (they drop so much urine into such a small area that the ground can’t take it all up, and it seeps down into the water table). Another major problem is the heavy use of fertiliser to grow enough grass to feed stock in an intensive dairy operation. Much of the fertiliser runs off the land and drains into rivers, where it encourages algal blooms and the growth of smothering aquatic flora. The blooms can give rise to mats of cyanobacteria, which were the cause of some recent dog deaths in New Zealand and could be equally dangerous to adventurous kids. The accelerated plant growth destroys the food supply of river animals, and soaks up dissolved oxygen making it hard to live underwater. 44% of monitored lakes have just got too much nutrient run-off to deal with, and they’ve turned murky and brown and inhospitable to life (“eutrophic” is the term). Since the early 1990s, the percentage of native freshwater species that are threatened with extinction has risen from 20% to 74%. The book goes on with depressing numbers like this.
For years Joy has been an outspoken advocate for New Zealand’s river health, and a vocal critic of the complacency of government and industry, regarding freshwater protection. (“Some dairy farmers regard me as the devil” he said in a recent interview. Apparently some dairy farmers are touchy about being total environmental monsters.) A paper he published last year, excellently titled “New Zealand Dairy Farming: Milking Our Environment for All its Worth”, detailed a cost-breakdown for restoring environmental damage caused by dairy farming. The projected cost was $15 billion, a.k.a. more than the industry is actually worth. This economic angle, putting actual figures on environmental harm done, is maybe the most effective argument in Polluted Inheritance.
Joy puts prices on all manner of environmental atrocities. If the normal human argument for saving waterways doesn’t sway you, then Joy’s numbers frame the argument in terms available to even the most basic of accounting algorithms. The agricultural services provided for free by healthy waterways, work like nutrient stripping, flood mitigation, and water storage, is lost when they are drained or polluted. A hectare of wetlands (“the kidneys of our waterways”) provides about $40,000 worth of these services every year just by doing normal wetland stuff. When wetlands are drained to make room for farmland (which has been the case for an astonishing 90% of our original wetlands), that’s $40,000 a year that someone has to pay to get those same services. Joy also describes a trial in Rotorua where the cost of removing a tonne of nitrogen from the lake was compared with the cost of lost revenue if a farmer used one less tonne of nitrogen fertiliser. It was thirty-seven times cheaper to not use the fertiliser in the first place. Even economics wants to save the rivers.
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The moral/aesthetic argument for protecting waterways is obvious. It goes something like “it is nice to hang out at rivers and lakes, and maybe have a paddle if you brought your togs and it’s not too cold.” But, rivers are quickly becoming too toxic to swim in—already 60% of all New Zealand’s rivers are unsafe to swim in because of pollution. Soon, the idea of being able to pop down to your local watering hole for a quick splash without contracting salmonella will be a nostalgic daydream; and not only is the government not that concerned with turning that around, but they flat out reject the idea that anyone could expect to swim in a river and not get sick. Key called the idea “aspirational.” The current legal rules only say that you should be able to wade in a river, or sit in a boat on it. Which seems crazy (who wades?), but unfortunately the guy in charge, environment minister Nick Smith, has said “I do not think a legal requirement for every water body in New Zealand to be swimmable is practical.” (As reported in this magazine, a petition organised by Choose Clean Water NZ was presented to parliament last month, calling for stricter guidelines. No word yet on how it went.)
As well as the pleasant summer afternoons that rivers can provide us (if you go far enough upstream), they hold enormous importance for Māori. Historically, big rivers like the Waikato provided everything for the local iwi: fish and plants for food, flax for weaving, and a whole network for trade and travel and communication. They also had important spiritual powers, and were used for ceremonies of healing, blessing, and cleansing. But according to the Waikato Regional Council, as the river has grown more and more polluted, and fish stocks have dropped or become contaminated with heavy metals from farm runoff, marae along the Waikato have found it harder to actually feed people, and the river’s spiritual power has waned in its sickness. Iwi elders talk about a time when they could drink straight from the river without fear of getting ill, but now the risk is too high.
Sooner or later, hopefully, the economic cost of dairy ruining the place for all of us will catch up to them. At this rate, it will soon become impossible to keep using the “100% Pure” slogan with a straight face, and our giant tourism sector will take a hit. The dairy industry might also come to see how it’s shooting itself in the foot for short-term gains, by eventually losing the international selling point of NZ milk as “clean, green” dairy. In the meantime though, the rest of us have to live with the steady degradation of our rivers that is the Mafia-style economic protection money demanded by the dairy industry. I actually like the idea of being clean and green, and it’s sad that we increasingly have to qualify the phrase. “Most of our rivers are clean,” to “some of them are clean,” to “well I think there are a few left in the mountains that are still OK.” Until we get some serious protective legislation, and have a ground-up rethink about basing our economy on nature-hating cows, then that’s what we have to live with.