Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond reflects on some key questions she raised in an earlier Newsroom column over how Aotearoa New Zealand can design a new institutional order which takes account of the Treaty of Waitangi and whakapapa

At the end of this column, Iwi vs Kiwi: Beyond the Binary, which Newsroom published on May 4, the author ended with a series of big picture questions for New Zealand:

– What would a whakapapa-based approach to Te Tiriti look like, in a country where an increasing number of citizens have whakapapa that include Māori, Pākeha, Pasifika and many other non-Māori forebears and whānaunga?

– Rather than Māori vs non-Māori, could ancestral ideas of lines of descent as strands that remain distinct, while being woven together to create a fine cloak, a meeting-house, a family or a nation, provoke new ways of imagining relations within and among individuals and groups across Aotearoa?

– Is there an opportunity to rethink identity in a whakapapa framing that includes other living systems and life forms – as in the Whanganui River and Urewera Acts, for example?

– Would it be possible to bring together ideas of whakapapa and complex systems in designing new institutional forms of order in Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as relations between people and the wider world?

She explored possible answers in Part 2 and Part 3, and goes further now, examining how integrated responses to climate change and the biodiversity crisis might play their part.


One last place to look for answers to the questions asked earlier might be in our relationships with land, forests, waterways and the ocean. Te taiao, the living world, includes all strands in the web of life – rivers, mountains, the sea, plants, animals and people.

This whakapapa vision fundamentally differs from modernity’s top-down, fragmented, extractive view of the living world, with its radical division between ‘people’ vs ‘the environment;’ and its ‘cost-benefit’ analyses that exclude impacts on communities and the living world as ‘externalities.’

Here, a toxic combination of Cartesian dualism and the Great Chain of Being helps to drive the entangled crises of climate change, biodiversity losses, degradation of waterways and the ocean and fractured, dysfunctional societies.

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It also threatens our best efforts to tackle these existential challenges. Strategies that assume that the world was created for human uses, and that people can command nature to do their bidding are based on the same life-threatening logic, and are unlikely to be effective.

A recent virtual gathering of Nobel prize-winners and leading global thinkers (including the Dalai Lama) came to similar conclusions. Their language was vivid, and bleak.

According to James Lovelock of ‘Gaia’ fame, for instance, climate change is a biological problem:

“Burning fossil fuels is releasing the energy of ancient photosynthesis in a geological instant; and in addition we have destroyed so much terrestrial nature that there is as much carbon from destroyed nature in the atmosphere as survives in current ecosystems.

“A good ending to climate change will require bringing much of that back through ecosystem restoration. For a satisfactory outcome, we need to manage ourselves.”

According to Sandra Diaz, an Argentinian ecologist, “We have incontestable evidence that the living fabric of the earth is being unravelled fast. The only reason this is happening is the present dominant model of appropriating nature.

Runaway climate change, massive biodiversity loss and intolerable social and environmental inequality among people are simply the three most serious symptoms of the same root problem. They must be tackled together.”

Time and again, the speakers stressed the interconnected nature of these crises, and an urgent need to change patterns of thinking based on the separation of people from nature, the fragmentation of living systems, and the earth as created for human purposes.

Likewise, a recent collaboration between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an Intergovernmental panel on Biodiversity insists that the biodiversity crisis and climate change must be tackled together.

They argue strongly against fractured approaches that fail to consider these links, describing reforestation efforts in Brazil using pine and eucalypt monocultures for carbon sequestration as “an impending ecological disaster, because they destroy the native ecosystem and the livelihoods of local communities.”

Our Climate Change Commission has fallen into precisely this trap with its unrelenting focus on carbon, for instance in recommending the expansion of carbon farming with pine trees in New Zealand. One can’t hope to solve these interconnected challenges by using the same splintered logic that caused them in the first place.

The climate commission and the Government must listen to the world’s best scientists and thinkers, and turn to nature-based strategies to tackle climate change and biodiversity losses – especially nature-based forestry, regenerative agriculture, horticulture, tourism and urban ways of living, and the restoration of mangroves and wetlands.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a brilliant opportunity to do this by bringing together whakapapa framings with the ‘web of life’ and cutting edge science to devise world-leading solutions to these existential crises. Let’s seize it, before it’s too late.

The whole series by Dame Anne is here in one combined article.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland, and 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

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