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August 2013 Issue
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Environmentalism: we’re doing it wrong!

The charity versus corporation model of environmentalism is used around the world… with similar results. Photo: United States Coast Guard

Tough economic times mean that New Zealanders are facing a fresh round of environmental battles. But if we want a decent chance of winning, perhaps we need to re-think our tactics

It’s hard to see your way out of a maze when you’re inside it. A bit of distance and a different perspective makes things much clearer. That’s one of the big attractions of getting out of the house, out of town or, as has been my case recently, out of the country altogether.

Like many South Islanders, I’ve flown the coop to the warmer climes of Thailand through the bleakest bit of winter. Despite being on holiday, it’s hard to switch off my tree-hugging instincts and so I’ve been paying pretty close attention to how the Thais tackle their environmental issues, many of which are exactly the same as ours.

Just like us, the Thais always have an eye on the horizon for the next way to put bread on the table and with oil prices marching upward and thirsty tuk-tuks needing filling, just like us they’re flirting with increasing the amount of offshore oil drilling in their waters – despite the obvious risks.

Over there the chief proponent of the ‘drill baby drill’ point of view is Salamander Energy, a British-based multi-national with interests throughout South East Asia and about NZ$500 million a year in revenue.

In the oil business, Salamander is small fry but in a country where the average wage is about $11,000, the sort of dollars Salamander can throw around in public relations campaigns talk very loud.

There is an opposing voice however. A group of concerned locals has come together under the leadership of the local Greenpeace office and they’re doing the usual greeny stuff; marching, unfurling banners, and writing sternly worded letters to anyone who’ll read them.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Greenpeace. I love the idea of a lobby group with an abseiling harness tucked under their skivvy. But looking at it with a foreigner’s impartiality, I can help but think they’re hopelessly out-gunned.

We need to focus less on winning matches and more on changing the rules of the game

You see, Greenpeace has a global budget of NZ$400 million. That’s spread between saving endangered species, stopping global warming, protecting the Amazon and keeping the Japanese whale ‘research’ programme in check – it’s only got offices in 40 countries, but as a global organisation it has about 200 countries to look after… somewhere, way down that to-do list is protecting Thailand’s marine ecosystem.

Sure, Greenpeace is a master of guerrilla tactics, but I’ve seen corporate public relations teams in action and can attest to their ingenuity. Trust me, if Greenpeace has a trick up its sleeve, you can be assured Salamander has three.

I hate to be pessimistic, but it seems to me that the Thai environmentalists are bringing a spoon to a knife fight. No doubt they’ll put up a heroic struggle… but the thing about underdogs is they typically get a whipping. I’d wager that next time I visit Thailand, which I hope to do soon, the amount of offshore oil drilling they’re doing will have increased.

Back in the enlightened first-world countries like New Zealand we tackle our environmental issues in an entirely more sophisticated way, right?

You’d think so, but no.

Checking the Kiwi papers on the way home, it turns out that the National Government has given the oil exploration rights to Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, a NZ$17billion multinational that was a 25 per cent part owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

To give you an idea just how robust Anadarko is, their 2012 annual report shows the company took a five billion NZ dollar loss as a result of what it refers to as ‘the Deepwater Horizon event’.

Going up against this juggernaut is, you guessed it, a band of concerned citizens, headed up this time by Hands Across the Sand, an environmental group much like Greenpeace but specifically targeting offshore oil drilling… and with an even smaller budget.

Yep, back home in Aotearoa – just like in Thailand – it seems to me we’re using fundamentally the wrong tactics to fight our environmental battles.

Perhaps the root of the problem is the way environmental groups and corporations work. Corporations benefit from positive feedback; a good year typically leads to better share prices, more investment – and an even better year next year. But environmental groups like Greenpeace and Hands Across the Sand suffer from exactly the opposite – any fundraising win immediately makes them seem less needy, so their benefactors have less reason to contribute.

The result is environmental charities tend to be scarce, small, fragile and short lived, whereas corporations are prolific and can be large, robust and potentially immortal.

So what’s the answer? Well, in short I don’t know. But I’d guess what we need to do is figure out a fundamentally different way of fighting our environmental battles – to give a positive feedback mechanism to environmentalists.

Perhaps a law change that assigns the intellectual property rights for any drug developed from a plant species to the ecosystem it came from. If every time someone popped an Aspirin (derived from willow bark) a few cents went to preserving European wetlands it’d certainly help.

Or we could let environmentalists capture the assets of corporations found to be breaking environmental laws. If when rather than just ramming illegal whalers, the Sea Shepherd guys were able to take ownership of them (like British ships in the Napoleonic wars) that would certainly change the matters a bit.

Those are both pretty outlandish and impractical examples. But hopefully you get the idea; we need to focus less on winning matches and more on changing the rules of the game – and we need to do it sooner rather than later, or else our environmental problems might go away, though not in the way we’d like.

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