'Stop Timberlands destroying forests', or 'Use means death to forests'. Misleading statements by the environmetal movement. Forest and Bird, and NFA (Native Forest Action) members to note. Threatened wildlife species in rimu forest would be endangered by felling of habitat trees.

Environmentalists Who are the Reactionaries?.

    24 January 2000.

Op-Ed article from Chris Perley, Forest Consultant

Environmentalists Who are the Reactionaries?


Environmentalists Who are the Reactionaries?

Chris Perley argues that the New Zealand environmental debate is dominated by an outdated extreme preservationist perspective that, however well meaning, is harming the attainment of a sustainable future. That perspective states that we must preserve natural resources against human 'use', because use is deemed harmful. Mr Perley argues that we need to discard this old preservationist environmentalism, and embrace a new environmentalism that accommodates both humanity and economy if a sustainable future for both humans and nature is to be attained.

All who claim the title 'environmentalist' are bound by three accepted truths. They are, firstly, that human enterprise has tended to harm the environment in pursuit of short-term human interests; secondly, that the situation is reaching some sort of crisis as we continue to live beyond the Earth's means; and lastly that we need to do something to solve the problem.

Where individual environmentalists differ is in the solution to this problem. The simplest reaction and the one that blows the loudest horn, at least in New Zealand is to argue for human use to stop altogether. This is the preservationist argument.

It is an understandable reaction, if a little knee jerk. It is based on the belief that almost all human use of ecosystems is harmful and therefore undesirable so if we stop 'use' then we'll be all right, and the planet can be saved. They desire an ecosystem that is unchanging, and that has no human influence. As such, they deny the very nature of ecosystems as dynamic systems as well as the environmental history of mankind. That view is especially popular among those who are removed somewhat from the sweaty proletariat which actually wrings the necks of those chickens they eat, or cuts down the trees they use for furniture and toilet paper. These workers are often portrayed as close to Neanderthal, whilst they, of course are 'enlightened'. They could not be further from the truth.

It is the most popular view because it is the simplest view, with the most emotionally resonant bumper stickers for instance, 'Stop Timberlands destroying forests', or 'Use means death to forests'. The fact that Timberlands are not destroying beech forests, or that use does not equate to 'death', is either not understood or is a conveniently ignored complication.

Implicit in their reaction is the assumption that they, somehow, are unconnected from the environment even that they do not use resources at all. In a sense, they are indeed disconnected though psychologically, rather than in any ecological or physical sense. This comes out no more strongly than when they suggest substitutes for such renewable resources as timber with non-renewable and far more environmentally destructive substitutes such as plastics and metal. Their response is based on emotion, not reason.

The loudest champions of the preservationist view are the leaders, though not the whole membership, of the Forest and Bird Society, and all who speak for Native Forest Action.

There is an element of the puritan about many of these antagonists. Their tone is morally indignant and finger pointing, with their book of belief clasped tightly to their chests. Much of their more strident following has the scent of urban myth and paranoia about it. Their Puritanism doesn't give sustainable management a chance.

But there is another group of environmentalists whose voice is drowned out by the cacophony. These other environmentalists present a more complex argument than the preservationists'. They represent a worldwide change of environmental focus a 'new' environmentalism which has so far passed the notice of the dominant voices here.

Their argument is not so popular with our media, perhaps because of its complexity. They believe that any solution must accommodate human use as well as environmental protection across all land, both because healthy ecological functions demands such a scope, and because humanity requires the use of the resources.

This group, with its broader view of sustainability, is another target of the preservationists, who regularly accuse them of being in the pay, or dupes of, any conspirator who plans use of our forests. Many have gone to ground following the personal attacks.

These 'new' environmentalists accept the three truths that unite all environmentalists; that we have a problem and we need to solve it. They accept as a reality that humans are just another species on this planet, all of which rely upon the energy from natural resource use. They accept that, as individuals of a species, we are all a part of the environment, no matter how psychologically removed we may presume to be. They accept as a possibility in fact as a necessity that humans can use resources without harming ecosystems, and while protecting and even enhancing them. Use and protection are not seen as mutually exclusive goals on any one piece of land. For a sustainable future, they cannot be.

They agree that the level of human resource use is unsustainable at present levels of use. They argue we must reduce resource use voluntarily or eventually be forced to do so by the limits of a finite planet (only some economists believe the earth is not finite). They argue that we must move away from a reliance on non-renewable resources to one that utilises renewable resources. They argue that we need a new ethics and a new economics that treats the environment as the pedestal upon which our society and economy ultimately rests.

Lastly, they support wholeheartedly attempts at the management of ecosystems that provides resources, while protecting all values especially ecological as a necessary path for a sustainable future that includes humans within it. This is why they support Timberlands.

The perspective of the Forest and Bird Society leadership could not be more different. It has recently passed a remit to say that it does not accept that sustainable management of our forests is possible, despite the world's historical examples, and despite our own forest ecology parallels. This is one of their depressingly puritanical catechisms that preclude even the option of keeping an open mind. They want to draw down the shutters on the publics' minds as well, as they have so effectively done to many politicians who consider themselves 'green', however shallow the shade.

The country was offered a choice to develop the path advocated by the 'new' environmentalists which Timberlands' beech management proposals offered, but it now appears to be lost unless some independent inquiry or judiciary can remove the politics from the issue.

The opportunity has been sabotaged largely by those outdated preservationists whose lack of vision has put back the cause of conservation decades, and by politicians whose interests lie with the simple, saleable messages, rather than the considered logic and truth.

It would not have mattered whether any hypothetical NZ organisation had proposed the most progressive and revolutionary forest management practices in the world and several international commentators as well as NZ resource professionals claim that that is exactly what Timberlands did offer preservationist would have reacted against it. Their stated beliefs allow no other course, and their preservationist solution does not can not accommodate human use and protection on the same land.

The treatment of Timberlands has been a scandal. It has been a scandal in terms of the half-truths and blatant untruths perpetrated not least in the so-called investigative journalism of the book "Secrets and Lies" by the preservationist groups. It has been a scandal in relation to the tactics and unspoken connections between these preservationist groups, certain elements of the science community, and some politicians. It has been a scandal in the cynical favouring by politicians of a local urban myth over a reasoned global perspective.

Like many of those accused by zealots in the past (McCarthy being the last major finger-pointer of modern memory), Timberlands was never given a fair go. Whenever and wherever it tried to get its message across it was presented with puritans' accusing fingers claiming "PR", "lobbying" and "deceit". Whenever it responded to the misinformation, it was the same.

That relates perhaps to the biggest scandal as a public we forgot again that more often than not the "accused" in past cases were innocent. When time eventually allows reason to prevail over the mob response, it is the zealous accusers who stand condemned.

Chris Perley is a Dunedin-based forest and natural resource consultant with qualifications in forestry science, agricultural science, and philosophy. He has a background as a practising forester and a policy analyst, with special interests in sustainable land management, environmental philosophy and ecological economics.

He has worked for Timberlands, most recently in relation to an analysis of the book "Secrets and Lies", preparatory to possible select committee questions.


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This opinion piece was not commissioned by either Timberlands, or any other organisation. It is my own professional opinion.

Chris Perley
Chris Perley and Associates
PO Box 7116
Dunedin
NEW ZEALAND 9001

Ph: +64 3 453 4948
Fax: +64 3 453 4945
Mob: +64 25 880 977
E-mail: chris@perleyandassoc.co.nz
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"Think Like a Mountain"       --     Aldo Leopold