A tangled environment

Tomorrow farmers around the country will tie orange ribbons on their front gates — if they heed Federated Farmers’ call to action. This is in protest at proposed public access to waterways.

Fish and Game says the proposal, developed by John Acland, a South Island high-country grandee farmer, are moderate. The Fed says they trample property rights.

The farmers’ campaign illustrates one perspective on the environment debate: private property is at the owner’s inviolable disposal.

Dairy farmers driving for higher productivity take a related line: a right to stock their properties to the limit and fertilise over the limit, regardless of the runoff into waterways.

Property rights and economic development are powerful political drivers. In the coming election campaign National and ACT will make a meal of the public access proposals.

Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton, no touchy-feely greenie, reckons the waterways in question “and the animals living in it” are publicly-owned. So the public have a right of access, provided they don’t do damage.

That illustrates another perspective on the natural environment: a resource for everybody. In the coming election the Green party will make the most of the public’s soft spot for mountains, rivers, kiwis and whales.

There are many perspectives, ranging from blanket preservation of the environment for its own sake or at least for future generations of humans to exploitation for today’s humans.

As election fodder the environment has many political, economic and social ramifications which will play out in the coming campaign. The weight given to each factor will likely change after the election, depending on the next government’s configuration.

And that is highly relevant to profits. The environment will not be top talking point in the election campaign. But it will be as important for business as tax cuts and more important than arguments over health and education.

Go back to those dairy farmers. The huge increase in their productivity and total production has been a big driver of the past five years economic growth.

Auckland urban affluence owes a lot to those farmers. So do the fatter recent business profits.

But tourism is now a bigger foreign exchange earner. And a large part of the enticement to tourists is a place that is clean and green, “100 per cent pure”.

It isn’t. It isn’t safe to swim in many rivers, let along drink the water. Nitrogen runoff from dairy farms is a big factor. The Rotorua Lakes and Lake Taupo are in serious trouble.

So there is the tradeoff perspective in the environment debate: a balance of risks and benefits.

Big money can be made out of rich and not-so-rich tourists in lodges and on tracks in national parks — but only if they don’t spoil them with rubbish and helicopters and harm the unique wildlife so then no one comes. That is no simple balancing act.

But no one will come either if the “for-its-own-sake” perspective triumphs and large areas of land and sea are reserved to preserve the present biodiversity. It may be unique, but so what if it is off-limits?

Some of the government’s actions since 1999 have something of that “for-its-own-sake” ring about them — or so think miners, loggers and high-country farmers under pressure to pay more for their Crown leases or sell up.

Then there is the “who-we-are” perspective: that we are in part defined by the special qualities of the landscape and coastal waters.

All that primeval bush, defended from possums by saturating it with poison. All those special birds and plants and fish found nowhere else in the world. That is who we are.

Hey, say Peter Dunne’s mates in the Outdoor Recreation party, “who we are” is a people who relish the outdoors. The Department of Conservation locks up too much and is now making a grab for large areas of the recreational coastal fishery.

And Maori have another take on “who we are”: taking shellfish, keeping sacred a river bend or a mountain. Wait till the Maori party gets going in Parliament next term.

But aren’t we now mainly townies? The land or coast is a picnic or ski trip or camping holiday. Isn’t that “who we are”.

And doesn’t that townie “we” need a competitive economy, delivering the goods (literally)? Which is why the National party and ACT oppose the Kyoto protocol. It will be a cost to business and individuals. We will be less rich.

And isn’t the Kyoto brigade just pushing the “for-its-own-sake” perspective? Aren’t Labour and the Greens putting emotional purity ahead of hard-pressed south Aucklanders’ needs? In any case, if global warming is going to happen (and now few dispute that), what can 4 million people do about it?

Kyoto backers counter with the “international-good-citizen” perspective. A less immodest formulation is Pete Hodgson’s “demonstration-effect” perspective. Climate is the economy’s competitive advantage. If we don’t pull our weight, however costly that is, how can we expect other nations to? Right on, say the Greens.

For a parallel, demonstrationists say, look to trade: being tiny, we need a rules-based trading system huge countries respect. That is a good part of the reason for belonging to the World Trade Organisation.

Right on says National. No go, say the Greens: the WTO stands for rape (of people, jobs and the environment). They want us to be more “local”: more modest in our consumption and more self-sufficient in our production.

Swing that “local” around: West Coasters took great umbrage when Labour stopped the logging in 2000. That was Wellington interfering in local customs. On that score the Greens are nationalist.

Which brings us to the RMA perspective. National, ACT and United Future will pound away this election on the need to tune up the Resource Management Act so that more roads, power stations and private enterprise projects can be built more quickly.

First, they will say, the economy needs it and pesky locals shouldn’t get in the way (except when they are National-voting farmers joining forces with Greens against Transpower’s Waikato pylons). And, second, private property rights and the market demand it.

Ah, the market. That takes us to ACT, which favours farming kiwis as a conservation mechanism. If you shrink from that, try National’s dimension: market instruments, such as tradable rights, should be used much more to achieve environmental objectives.

One example National’s resident green, Nick Smith gives: set reducing limits for an area on farm runoff and allow farmers to trade pollution rights within the overall limit.

Labour may get that far in time but its instincts are regulatory. The Greens are dubious. While they favour shifting the tax burden from income to energy and propose tendering for the supply of solar panels, they reach much more often for regulation: a moratorium on “bottom trawling” for ocean fish, for example and a ban on bycatches if strict limits are exceeded.

The market and regulation, property rights and public rights, who exactly we are, local and national, biodiversity and human need: you will hear as many perspectives on the environment this election campaign as there are parties — more, in fact, if you also count in factions within the parties.

Tax cuts are a much easier and noisier argument. But the environment argument, too, is critical to profits.