Jeanette Fitzsimons: How our attitudes towards the environment have changed 1974 – 2010

Jeanette Fitzsimons, former co-leader of the Green Party, resigned from Parliament in February this year, after a long and influential political and academic career.  envirohistory NZ thought it would be a good opportunity to ask Jeanette about the major shifts she has observed over the last four decades in the way we as New Zealanders view our environment.

In her response to this question, Jeanette highlights three themes: attitudes towards nuclear power, indigenous forestry and farming.

I returned to NZ in late 1974 after 7 years away. NZ was in the middle of deciding where to put the first nuclear power station. At least the government thought we were. But a citizens’ movement stopped it, with a giant petition, Campaign Half Million which in fact collected a third of a million signatures; a speaking tour by a number of well informed New Zealanders to raise public awareness; a royal commission of enquiry into the need for nuclear in NZ’s energy policy; communities around the country declaring themselves nuclear free zones; and eventually, a decade later, persuasion of the government that NZ should become nuclear free. It’s worth reminding ourselves of that, as no New Zealander under 40 would have much recollection of it. The important thing to remember is that the people moved first, and eventually after a huge struggle, the government followed.

Organised public pressure and campaigning also turned around the policy on logging native forests. In 1975 Graham Searle of Friends of the Earth published his book, “Rush to Destruction” where he documented proposals for a giant scheme to log the west coast beech forests for wood chips. That didn’t eventuate, and Native Forests Action Council worked for years to raise awareness, with another giant petition, the Maruia Declaration, calling for an end to the logging of old growth forests. Meanwhile in the eighties government subsidies were created to smash down native bush and plant pines. New west coast logging proposals (“sustainable” they were called) in the nineties led to public outcry, particularly in the cities, with activists sitting in the trees and a helicopter logging company swinging logs at them while Rod Donald and I raised it daily in Parliament with the minister, Jenny Shipley. In 1999/2000 the Greens and the new Labour government negotiated an end to the logging of all state forests, resulting in the protection of Okarito and the Buller beech forests. The idea of turning ancient trees into wood chip is now as alien as the thought of going nuclear.

I think these two issues illustrate a permanent change in mind set among New Zealanders.

Not so in farming, where I have watched two contradictory trends. Compared with the seventies, NZ farms are pouring on huge quantities of urea and other nitrogenous fertilisers (it has increased more than 6-fold in that time), with deteriorating water quality in our lowland streams and rivers.  The public is starting to get concerned and calling for riparian fencing and planting and regional councils and Fonterra and some farmers are responding but the intensification of stocking rates driven by irrigation and urea is outstripping the benefits of riparian management so far. At the same time, there has been a big increase in the demand for organically grown food, and of the area under organic management which has approximately doubled since 2002 with production value on target to reach a billion dollars in 2013. This is all land not subjected to any pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilisers. There is a kind of tug of war going on – the more the industry intensifies and people become concerned about food quality and water quality, the more the demand of organic food grows, here and in our export markets. The next few years will be crucial to see which trend dominates.

[Photo above centre: Beech forest, Okarito, on the west coast of the South Island (photo: Department of Conservation). Above left: Jeanette Fitzsimons on her farm in Coromandel (Photo: Jeanette Fitzsimons]

3 thoughts on “Jeanette Fitzsimons: How our attitudes towards the environment have changed 1974 – 2010

  1. Thank you Jeanette Fitzsimons for your article, for your life, and especially for having been a politician who managed to remain an honest, sincere person avoiding spin, triviality and ego. A very rare achievement.

  2. I agree. I hope that we can continue to follow your example and the good examples that you’ve described here. Please keep reminding us in the future!

  3. New Zealanders will look back with gratitude for the courage of the Greens and its leadership. Very rare to find someone of commitment and integrity. Thank you for your many years of dedicated public service!

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