Easter is the perfect time for us to consider how well we’re looking after our life support system. Many of us have a few days off in places urban, rural, seaside or wild to savour nature, the source of everything we need for our survival; and for those of us of the great faiths of the world, all founded in the northern hemisphere, this is our spiritual spring, a time of rebirth and renewal.
We think nature is boundlessly abundant. Yet, it is astonishingly scarce. The biosphere, home to all living things from our largest plants and animals to our tiniest microbes, is just a gossamer thin layer of air, water, soil and sea enveloping the planet.
The atmosphere is barely 100km deep, with virtually all the air we breathe in the bottom 10 km. If all the atmosphere was collected in one place at sea level pressure, it would be a bubble just 2,000km in diameter, less than the drive down our north and south islands. Yet into this bubble we humans pumped last year 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, compounding our climate catastrophe.
If all the water in the world – oceans, lakes, rivers, vapour in the atmosphere and aquifers as far as we can measure them – was collected in one place it would be a globule only 1,400km across, less than the drive from Cape Reinga to Christchurch. All the surface fresh water in the world would be a droplet 62km across, half the distance from Auckland to Hamilton.
Yet this biosphere, our one and only, supports teeming life forms, including 7.7 billion people. But we humans have tripled in number in the past 70 years, wreaking havoc on our very life support system.
As it happens, this Easter the Government has just released its most powerful analysis yet of our impact on New Zealand’s biosphere. Environment Aotearoa 2019 is a big improvement on the previous, and first, such report in 2015.
Remarkably considering how much we say we value our nature, we were the last developed country in the world to embark on such work. We only began with the Environmental Reporting Act of 2015. It requires the government to produce reports on five domains – air, atmosphere and climate, fresh water, land, and marine – with a report on one domain every six months plus a synthesis report of all of them in a three-year cycle.
The latest verdict is crystal clear: our destruction of our ecosystems continues apace. Oh, yes, some rivers in some rural and urban places are better than they were. But overall, we continue to degrade them. Oh, yes, we are managing to increase by a few the populations of some highly endangered native birds. But if we stopped our conservation efforts, they would become extinct.
Quite simply, the way we live and the way we earn a living, in town and country, is increasingly damaging the things we value. These include nature itself, and our health, economy, identity, culture, recreation and ultimately social stability.
Given these are vastly complex and interdependent issues, we need help to understand their causes and cures.
With that goal in mind, the Ministry for the Environment used four criteria to select themes and issues for the report:
– Spatial extent and scale (how much of New Zealand is affected by the issue?)
– Magnitude of change (is the issue increasing in scale and/or distribution, or accelerating?)
– Irreversibility and lasting effects of change (how hard is it to fix?)
– Scale of effect on culture, recreation, health, and economy (how much does it affect the things we value?)
This analysis produced five themes and identified nine issues arising from them:
– Theme 1: Our ecosystems and biodiversity
– Issue 1: Our native plants, animals, and ecosystems are under threat
-Theme 2: How we use our land
– Issue 2: Changes to the vegetation on our land are degrading the soil and water
– Issue 3: Urban growth is reducing versatile land and native biodiversity
– Theme 3: Pollution from our activities
– Issue 4: Our waterways are polluted in farming areas
-Issue 5: Our environment is polluted in urban areas
– Theme 4: How we use our freshwater and marine resources
– Issue 6: Taking water changes flows which affects our freshwater ecosystems
– Issue 7: The way we fish is affecting the health of our ocean environment
– Theme 5: Our changing climate
– Issue 8: New Zealand has high greenhouse gas emissions per person
– Issue 9: Climate change is already affecting Aotearoa New Zealand
The report says the fifth is the most important because climate change is intensifying the effects of all the other issues.
For a dive into some of the crucial issues arising, please read these stories by three of my Newsroom colleagues: Biodiversity on the brink; Soils at risk of perfect storm as forestry and cities grow; Data gaps behind the environmental headlines.
The report itself is highly readable, with the summary even more so. They are available on the MfE website. I particularly recommend this graphic on page five of the summary:
We absolutely need the science and facts about our relationship with the biosphere to guide us in changing our ways. We have to ensure everything we do works with nature not against it. Then we will give our life support system half a chance to heal itself. But for many of us even the facts aren’t enough to move us.
As Charles Eisenstein writes in his book Fear of a Living Planet:
“I don’t know about you, but I didn’t become an environmentalist because someone made a rational argument that convinced me that the planet was in danger. I became an environmentalist out of love and pain: love for the world and its beauty and the grief of seeing it destroyed.
“It was only because I was in touch with these feelings that I had the ears to listen to evidence and reason and the eyes to see what is happening to our world. I believe that this love and this grief are latent in every human being. When they awaken, that person becomes an environmentalist.”
My journey on this has been long and slow. I grew up in the largest industrial city in England where nature, apart from manicured parks and gardens, was mostly obliterated by buildings and smog. So as a family we escaped often to the surrounding countryside, or further afield to seaside and mountains.
As for my spiritual connection with nature, all the Church of England offered me as a child were the dying days of human dominion over nature. Later my church talked of stewardship. These days it talks of our care of creation. But that makes no sense to me, since creation cares for us.
My real awakening began with my arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand 22 years ago. First it was the sheer beauty and variety of this place and the glorious, though tragically threatened, biodiversity of it that had its way with me; and in recent years my formative influence is Te ao Māori, the Māori world view. It guides me in my search for righting by relationship with nature so I can become more intrinsically part of it. (Ultimately I will reach my goal. When I die, I insist on being buried so I can compost completely.)
Yet, as the years of inaction roll by, and our damage to our life support system intensifies here and around the world, I increasingly believe we won’t do enough until we care enough. And we won’t care enough until we have a spiritual relationship with nature.
That can take countless, varied forms, personal and collective — all the great faiths of the world have in common this quest for connection and meaning. Eleven of them, for example, founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation in 1995. Its history is intriguing and its Ohito Declaration on religions, land and conservation inspiring.
As a business journalist interested in the levers of power and change, I also note ARC’s calculation that its 11 faiths own 7 percent of the habitable surface of the planet; and if they invested together, they would be the world’s third largest identifiable block of equity owners.
So, this long weekend, should you take a brief break from communing with nature to read about nature, please my I recommend an excellent companion piece to Environment Aotearoa 2019 – Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, On Care for our Common Home.
In next week’s column, I’ll return to my three-part series on our responses to the climate crisis.