Jeanette Fitzsimons was an early and tireless advocate for the environment, of formidable intelligence and warmth. Pat Baskett remembers her friend and former co-leader of the Green Party.
I’m tempted to say, of my close friend Jeanette Fitzsimons, that the totara has fallen in the forest of Tane. Clichés were anathema to Jeanette but I think she would have liked to see herself as a tree – a native, tall, strong and beautiful, serving many purposes and succouring those in need.
Her mind was extraordinary. She understood economics, environmental science, how electricity production and markets worked, the practicalities of permaculture and growing trees. But her university degree was a BA in French and music. She was a talented violinist whose love for the string quartets of Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, was profound. In the 1970s she sang in the Dorian Choir and travelled with them to Europe in 1977.
We worked together at that time, on Campaign Half Million, which aimed to collect half a million signatures on a petition ensuring New Zealand said “no” to the prospect of nuclear power. During the 1980s that campaign enlarged into that for a nuclear-free New Zealand which, thanks to the Lange Labour government, gave us the legislation banning nuclear-armed or powered ships from entering our harbours.
We also worked together on the magazine New Zealand Environment, for which, amongst other topics, she spelled out the reasons why the Motunui synthetic petrol plant was a short-sighted white elephant that wasted natural gas. Her views on this gas changed, of course. Methane comes not only from animals but leaks at every stage of gas production.
She also worked ardently for electricity conservation over the construction of more power plants.
Jeanette was never behind the times and from her vast memory she could pull out whatever environment-related bit of information you were looking for. This ability was honed during the years she lectured in environmental studies at what was, in the early 1990s, the University of Auckland’s planning department.
Despite her formidable intellect, she was not a cold person, she said in a Herald interview I did with her in April 1990, which focused on her environmental concerns:
“If you’re not emotionally affected you don’t do this kind of work, but doing something makes it bearable. You have to have a basically optimistic approach to life.”
Her tactic, when lecturing, for preventing student despair was to give them what she called “solution multipliers” – answers to a problem that address more than one issue, rather than solving one problem and thereby creating another.
She was one of the first in New Zealand to articulate concerns about climate change and attended the Ministry for the Environment’s conference on the subject in March 1988. At that time the environment movement world-wide was gloating somewhat over achievements to limit the use of ozone-destroying chemicals, known as CFCs. She ended her report on that meeting, which was published in NZ Environment No 58, with these comments:
“International cooperation was achieved after much hard work … Everyone stands to lose catastrophically from the destruction of the ozone layer … No one expects any benefit. Yet the agreement which was achieved was for a reduction which is too little and much too late. How much harder will it be to reach agreement on preventing climate change?”
So she knew the way would be hard and her years in government as a Green Party MP did nothing to change this view. But she never allowed herself to give up and leave the task to others.
Playing string quartets was an occasional indulgence with a small group of musicians and she and husband Harry Parke would travel to Auckland for chamber music concert – but only when a meeting or a particular job gave them more than one reason to travel.
Her energies were focused in the last few years on promulgating Our Climate Declaration, a document which expresses her priorities and principles for the changes we in New Zealand have to make. Her concerns were as much for social justice as for environmental protection. This was what gave her integrity and what made her uncompromising in situations where some trade-off might have seemed possible.
Her own daily life exemplified these beliefs, in the farm she shared with husband Harry. They weren’t vegetarian because she believed that their land, and other areas like it, were only fit for animal grazing, not growing crops. They treated their beasts as sentient creatures. They grew a prodigious amount of organic vegetables, Jeanette milked a house cow and she made superb cheese.
Her life can be summed up in this comment she made in 1990:
“You do it because you can’t live any other way.”
Jeanette leaves sons, Mark, in England, Jeremy and daughter-in-law Sarah and grandchildren Isabella and Jasper in Wellington.