The untimely deaths of Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rob Fenwick have robbed us of two formidable campaigners for the environment. While both had long careers behind them they still had much more to give to us.

Fitzsimons was a crucial leader in getting the environment and sustainability on to the political and policy agenda via the Green Party. Fenwick was similarly invaluable, coming at the issues via business and the National Party and then reaching across the political and social spectrum. Both were excellent at building coalitions of support. Both were very good people who remained true to themselves as they helped us navigate through these complex and often divisive issues.

Two of Fitzsimons’ legacies will be her push to make farming more sustainable and to purge coal from our economy, though in both areas she knew there were many more battles still to win. Fenwick leaves many marks, but the most important could be the creation of the Aotearoa Circle 18 months ago. Its purpose is to put our natural capital at the forefront of all our economic and business decisions. To achieve this, it has brought together major corporates and relevant government agencies.

Fenwick’s co-founder of The Circle is Sir Jonathon Porritt, son of our first NZ-born Governor-General. Porritt has a long career in environmental issues in the UK, including being the chief sustainability adviser to the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments. Forum for the Future, the organisation he founded and is still a director of, is working with major New Zealand corporates such as Air New Zealand and Fonterra.

The Circle’s first big project is on reforming the finance system to better support our drive to sustainability. I covered its draft report in this column last November. Its final report is due out in mid-year. The Circle is working on other areas too such as biodiversity, land and soil.

The achievements of Fenwick and Fitzsimons over the past two decades have helped to significantly change our values, practices and ambitions on the environment. Many of the issues, such as climate change, are now mainstream. Increasingly, businesses are taking up the immense challenges of sustainability. Similarly, some political parties are engaged too.

The Greens remain the leaders; and Labour is trying hard on climate, and water in particular. But National is still hobbled by its attempts to make the status quo slightly more sustainable. Given its conservative membership, it rejects the necessity of deep-seated reforms. Worse, New Zealand First is weak and opportunistic on the issues, while Act is uninterested, in or in denial of them.

Fenwick and Fitzsimons were acutely aware their work had barely begun. Business, the economy and society at large have yet to acknowledge how radical are the transformations we need. Just minimising the damage we’re doing to our environment and natural capital is far from enough. We have to learn how to work with nature, not against it. Then we will help our ecosystems regenerate so they are healthier, more resilient, more productive and deeply sustainable.

I’ve seen many of these challenges up close as I’ve cycled down the country from Cape Reinga over the past three weeks. I’m writing this column in Haast after 24 consecutive days of travel. Just five more days of riding will get me to Bluff. Along with some 1200 other riders, I will have then completed the 3000km biennial Tour Aotearoa.

Sustainability and the South

This is the fourth column I’ve written on the road. The first was about the Northland economy; the second about drought, farming and ecosystem restoration; the third about the economic and social dynamics of the Tour itself; and the rest of this column is about the South Island economy.

Two big issues have been front of mind in my Mainland travels this past week.

First is climate change. In stark contrast to the North Island drought, the issue here, particularly down the West Coast, is more water. Climate change modelling shows a marked increase in rainfall and severity of storms over coming decades.

The Fox river. Photo: Rod Oram

That’s starting to happen such as the severe storm last December which unleashed massive landslides that blocked Highway 6 north and south of Franz Josef and Fox townships, isolating them for some days. Earlier this week I rode over the Mount Hercules saddle on Highway 6, the site of the northern slip. The debris had been cleared but crews were still working on securing the massive scar and improving the road.

Frequently down the West Coast this week I’ve seen excavators deepening watercourses and strengthening stopbanks to try to make them more effective in storms. For example, not far south of Fox on Highway 6 a couple of big excavators and loading trucks and trailers were doing such work.

These efforts, though, are so puny. When a powerful storm hits, it can move vast volumes of earth and rock, dramatically reshaping rivers and the surrounding land. An example from the North Island: on the night of February 14/15, 2004 a massive storm, the tail end of a Pacific cyclone, slammed the Manawatu.

Because so much of the local hills were cleared of bush some generations ago and turned into pasture, mainly for sheep, these hills suffer from terrible erosion, as do many other parts of the country. That night the Manawatu River, measured by scientists at the Fitzherbert Bridge in Palmerston North, was carrying 28 tonnes of topsoil a second – a total of 2.5m tonnes in the peak 24 hours of the storm. I visited some sheep and dairy farmers soon after and saw the devastation the storm wrought.

So, the West Coast is going to have to figure out far more fundamental ways to restore landscapes and ecosystems to make them more storm tolerant. But this challenge of adapting to climate change is one we’ve barely begun to consider across the whole country.

Second, is business and economic sustainability. Repeatedly over the generations, people have plunged into economic activities and pushed them beyond their breaking point. This has often left a trail of economic losses, ecological damage and human suffering. Gold and coal mining, for example, have played valuable economic roles but at a high cost. Some old gold mine processing sites are still poisonously polluted; and the Pike River Memorial Garden at Atarau is a testament to the negligence and folly that lead to that mining disaster.

The Pike River Memorial Garden. Photo: Rod Oram

Tourism and dairying are the two current big hopes on the West Coast. Both are highly prone to boom/bust cycles. Indeed, Westland Milk made serious errors in how it priced its equity capital, which in turn wrecked its balance sheet and led to its sale to Yili, the Chinese dairy company, as I analysed in this column last June. And now tourism is suffering from the drop in visitors caused by the coronavirus.

Thankfully, though, a new generation of leaders, diverse in skills and backgrounds, are building a better future down the Coast, as they are around the country. These are people for whom deep sustainability in all senses of the word – environmental, economic, social and culture – is their great calling in life.

Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rob Fenwick took heart from such people. We have lost two giants of the forest. The many seeds they scattered are taking root.

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