'Clean-green' is a risky strategy

This is a green government. That can’t be said too often and Marian Hobbs was at it on Monday evening, celebrating a decade of the Resource Management Act and promising “strong government leadership” to achieve the act’s objectives.

Her report card: “…enables communities to manage their environment . . . ground-breaking framework for achieving sustainability . . . largely successful, achieving a great deal to improve the environment.” And democratic: “If you provide people with a way to have their say, there will inevitably be disagreements.”

But we are not green enough yet. Hobbs has canned developer-friendly amendments proposed in 1999 and instead is giving objectors more opportunities and financial help.

So National’s Nick Smith is revving up a “campaign” founded on developers’ horror stories. But, a greenish fellow himself, Smith implicitly acknowledges the act’s success: he is proposing only to amend it, not (to take Labour’s formula for the Employment Contracts Act) “repeal and replace”.

Not enough, say plenty in Smith’s party rank and file and outside. To them the act — or its council administration — tramples property rights and slows economic progress.

At the other extreme pure-belief outlaw activists sit up trees or rip up genetically modified crops, as Nandor Tanczos’s Wild Greens did to some GM potatoes, for example.

These are polarising arguments. And of them GM is the most polarising.

Strong belief systems and even stronger fears drive GM opposition. At its most extreme that opposition resembles the mentality of those Confucian, Catholic and Islamic authorities who, at different times in history, have suppressed the pursuit of some knowledge as too dangerous or immoral even to contemplate. Some Maori comments come close to this.

At the opposite pole is western civilisation’s science of the past five centuries, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, by hypothesis, testing and challenge, to our enormous benefit and occasional disasters.

Science cannot “prove” something is safe, as the fearful and pious demand. A scientific proof is valid only for as long as it is not successfully challenged. Demands for absolute proof of safety are actually demands for a permanent GM ban.

Re-enter our green government. Pragmatically, it doesn’t want too high a Green vote on GM grounds next year. And, consistent with its own green leanings, it believes “clean and green” is a crucial economic competitive advantage.

So Helen Clark has suggested a long ban on product development from GM research and trials, except for medicines and maybe for environmental controls, for example of possums — thus overriding her own cautious royal commission and the tough standards-setting Environmental Risk Management Authority.

And generally the government is putting strong emphasis on the environment in its triple bottom line (economic, social and environmental) approach to policymaking.

This “clean-green” strategy seems vindicated by a sixth-best ranking by the World Economic Forum of countries’ environmental sustainability.

But how safe is this strategy?

A scale developed by the Friends of the Earth for the Ecologist magazine, puts us 84th. Other scales have us somewhere in between.

Actually, this country is not clean and green. It is simply empty — and dirty. To trumpet “clean-green” as our prime promotional tool is highly risky.

Some years back the influential New Scientist magazine made the point with a scorching headline: “Poisoned paradise”. If the world’s general media rumbled us, “clean-green” could go up in smoke.

The same would happen with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease or BSE or suchlike. Bio-terrorism or simple bio-accident or bio-stupidity are this country’s worst nightmares. Against them no convincing defence has been fashioned, despite Jim Sutton’s exhortations and brave words last week.

The risk in the “clean-green” line points policy in two directions.

One is massively to boost efforts actually to live up to the slogan, which is economically expensive but might — might — yield rich rewards.

The other is to construct at full speed an escape route to a new economic strategy. A phrase that comes to mind is the “knowledge wave”. But doesn’t that need GM?