There’s a cost to our existence. There’s coal mined to forge the steel to build the cities we live in and the cars we drive; the forests we’ve cleared to produce our food; the land we’ve peeled away to build new subdivisions; the river rapids drowned under the dams of the hydroelectric schemes that keep us warm at night.
Yeah, we know. No need to go on about it.
But it’s worth talking about, because we need to understand our footprint and be comfortable with its consequences.
Presently, we designate some areas for total exploitation, and others for total protection. These protected places are salves for the conscience, our national parks and wilderness areas and marine reserves, as though they cancel out the places we’ve irreversibly changed. Some have suggested this approach seems old-fashioned, that we need to co-habit with the natural world, and exploit it sustainably. It’s a theme, in particular, of the Māori worldview, which is partly why national parks vested as Crown land and no-take marine reserves don’t sit easily with some iwi.
We know that our wild places are affected by what we do everywhere else, and as a result, we’re trying hard to unexploit some places—rewilding suburbs, creating bird corridors, planting stream margins—all of these an acknowledgement that we need to reduce the sum total of human exploitation on the world, or we’re going to ruin the whole thing.
Yet conservation science tell us that protecting some places and fully exploiting others often has better results than a little bit of exploitation everywhere. This is most obvious in the sea, where the convection of life is constantly stirring all things together. There, having some areas untouched is critically important to the structure of the ecosystem—otherwise everything is compromised.
These are among the challenging terms of reference for the panel deciding the fate of stewardship land. Should it be entirely protected—no use permitted—or entirely exploited? Other voices, predominantly Māori ones, are pointing out that perhaps this all-or-nothing approach isn’t necessary, and that, historically, the concept of kaitiakitanga allowed for both protection and utility, even commerce. You could have your birds and eat them, too.
We can’t copy-and-paste exactly the same tactics today—there are too many of us who are too comfortable using lots of resources—but the same principles apply.
It may be possible to use and protect, and it may be necessary, too, because all of the natural world requires our care, and all of it bears our signature.
Many of us would like to see a reduction in the net total of human exploitation, but most of us haven’t calibrated our expectations around what that would look like, or how that would affect our lives. If we stop burning coal for heat, that deficit will need to be paid in reduced consumption or increased generation, which may require rivers turned into hydro lakes, or significant government subsidies for switching coal boilers to biofuel.
These are unpleasant choices. Yet this is something we’re all part of—this is not only a national project, but a global one. More than ever, we need to listen to one another, communicate respectfully, and weave these threads of knowledge together to find a new and more durable approach to living in Aotearoa.