Last year, Lindsay Gow retired from his position as Deputy Secretary of the Ministry for the Environment after more than two decades leading environmental policy work in New Zealand. envirohistory NZ asked Lindsay to share his thoughts on how New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the environment and environmental issues have changed over this period:

The first change has been in public and political opinion.

20 years and more ago environmental policy was very much the junior partner in the both government and public eyes.  Although the establishment of the Ministry for the Environment and the Department of Conservation came out of a reaction to the rapacious “think big” developments, it was not easy to get policy issues and ideas launched.  We found that the onus of proof was against, not in favour of environmental protection. We had to prove that a manifest problem existed – severe enough to warrant intervention.  And inevitably the economic calculus, with its short term time preference values, gave little weight to medium or long term term future benefits.

New Zealanders tend to take our environment for granted, partly because we live in a mostly benign and forgiving landscape.  It’s not until there are signs of serious damage affecting people directly that public opinion begins to move, and then the Government gets blamed.  It took time and a lot of effort to get serious work on pollution and waste understood, much less accepted.  Many people couldn’t see the damage lead in petrol was doing or the effects of other pollutants, or even the degraded state of our waterways and beaches.

Two decades later environmental policy is no longer seen as strange, much less marginal.

One of the reasons for the change is a growing appreciation of the value of New Zealand’s unique biodiversity.  The Department of Conservation should take the credit for successfully managing nearly 30% of New Zealand’s landscape.  What was once marginal land is now seen as a major community and economic asset.  And related ideas, like “Clean, Green” and “100% NZ Pure” have taken off and apply to more than just the protected landscapes.  Another big change affecting public perceptions has been the increased publicity, both globally and locally, that environmental issues receive.  Even the economic calculus has changed.

In the 80s, there was a strongly held economic view that if only “correct” pricing systems were imposed, there would be no environmental problems.  And there was also a belief that technology, with the right market incentives of course, could always deal with any environmental issues.  Further, there were no such things as ecological limits – all resources were substitutable.  When you ran out of something – be it coal or water or trees, markets and technology simply provided another comparable resource.  The idea of ecological systems, where everything is connected to everything else, was a foreign ingredient in this view.

Today, for the most part, things have changed. Market mechanisms have their place and indeed can be very effective but they are no longer seen as the only policy tool. But ecological systems, limits and thresholds are now accepted as real ingredients in and constraints on policy – be it economic or environmental.

envirohistory NZ also asked Lindsay to provide a photo of himself in an environment that is special to him (top centre). “This is taken on the deck of my house overlooking the Pauatahanui inlet – one of my favourite places. It’s a great place for kayaking, one of the things I like to do. It’s also a very important estuarine ecosystem and once was a highly productive nursery for a wide variety of marine species.  Its name says it all – big Paua.  Sadly, agricultural run off from years of farming and, since the 80s, far too much silt from poorly managed urban development, have resulted in marine pollution and massive siltation which have altered it significantly.  It is no longer the place of the big Paua.  But as you can see, it is still a beautiful environment.  It is an example of how we New Zealanders seem to ignore marine environments, and the cumulative result of years of abuse is bad news all round, even if the damage isn’t obvious to many people.  The good news is that the local authorities (Porirua City and the Wellington Regional Council), are engaged on work to try and rehabilitate it.”

See also .

See also: Lindsay Gow’s thoughts on the RMA – 20 years on Jeanette Fitzsimons: how our attitudes towards the environment have changed 1974 -2010, The eternal dilemma – development versus preservation, Resource management law – a potted history.