• It’s Not Just the Rivers

    When I was a child, we lived in Palmerston North.  Our favourite picnic spot was a few miles away, at Raumai, on the banks of the Manawatu river.  It was in the river there that I learnt to swim.

    Like many of my generation, and many others as well no doubt, I was shocked to see television pictures the other day of what has happened to our rivers.  What we saw on our screens looked like footage of polluted sewers and drains, with large clumps of discoloured foam floating along the surface of what was once a pristine river.

    We could not see the e-coli but the commentary assured us (if that is the right word) that they were there in very large and dangerous numbers.

    There are those who choose to deny that climate change is brought about by man’s activities.  But there can be no doubt about who or what is responsible for the despoliation of our waterways.

    It is not necessary to single out dairy farmers or any other group to recognise the truth.  There can be no more graphic illustration of what happens when the “bottom line” always takes precedence – when “turning a buck” or “making a profit” or “staying in business” or “increasing production” is always seen as good enough reason and excuse to destroy our environment.

    Are we pleased with and proud of what we have done?  Of how we have been fortunate enough to live in the most beautiful country in the world, one of whose greatest treasures is its sparkling, clean waters?  And that we have then, within a few decades and by giving free rein to market forces, succeeded in transforming that treasure into dross?

    We are told that, so bad is the damage we have wreaked, we will never be able to restore our aquifers and waterways to an acceptable condition, and that it will take decades before young Kiwis can swim safely in our rivers.  What a legacy to leave!

    Will we learn any lessons?  I doubt it.  The drive to make more money and the conviction that the market must always prevail are now so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we will shrug our shoulders and carry on – to drive species to extinction, to exhaust our reserves and resources, to contaminate anything that gets in the way of “progress”.

    Will we even pause to consider what else we might be placing at risk?  If we are prepared to sacrifice our environment (in other words, where we live – and swim, if we are lucky), what other sacrifices are we lining up?

    The environment at least has the advantage that it can, in many of its aspects, be depicted visually, so that we can at least see what we have done before shrugging our shoulders and motoring on.  But what of those other forms of damage we are doing to ourselves, that cannot be so easily viewed on our television screens?

    The same lack of care, the same greed, the same drive for material goods, the same selfishness and short-sightedness are certainly doing us great damage of another kind – damage of which we are constantly made aware but that many of us choose to ignore.

    That damage is to the fabric of our society – and the analogy with our destructive treatment of the environment is, sadly, all too clear.

    The health and integrity of New Zealand society was once, like our environment, the envy of the world.  But our concerns for our fellow citizens, for ensuring that everyone has “a fair go” in the sense of being properly equipped with good health, housing and education to face the challenges of life, have fallen away as we focus more and more on “getting ahead”, on the “rat race”, on that bigger and better house or car.

    We have become a “me first” society, indistinguishable from those in “less happier lands”.  Our pride in the fact that we once led the world in terms of giving proper and equal value to every one of our citizens has faded away.  We have instead hastened to fall into line as adherents of the hard-nosed, Anglo-American version of capitalism, and we are undeterred by the widening inequality and increasing prevalence of poverty that now mark the way we live.

    The unacceptability of the damage we have done, and continue to do, may not be so graphically demonstrated as it is in television pictures of the disgusting state of our rivers – but it is no less real.  The rivers, and what we have done to them, matter hugely in their own right, but they should also be seen as a metaphor for what we have done to ourselves.

    Bryan Gould

    30 April 2017