Sense and sustainability

by The Listener / 21 February, 2013
We must consider the planet – but we also need to function economically.
Money - Sense and sustainability
Niwa/Listener illustration

What’s more important: our economic well-being or the environment?

Both – you can’t have one without the other.

Environmentalists argue the environment should always take precedence. Businesses say you need a vibrant economy to pay for that protection. Most agree some environmental areas are sacred, but defining the scope of those areas is the tricky bit. We need to protect the environment and produce the goods and services we need.

Sue Fitchett of Waiheke Island has raised the protection of the Kermadecs, having read my February 2 Money column.

“When [she] refers to the Kermadecs as a source of renewable mineral deposits on the sea bed, one is left wondering if she is unaware of how remarkable this area is for its diversity of marine habits.

“The National Geographic calls it ‘one of the last pristine sites in our oceans’. The Kermadecs’ 620,000sq km is so remarkable that the [Pew] global marine environment group is working to have the area protected in a marine reserve. It would take several paragraphs to list all the marine flora and fauna that live or breed in this area.”

That area is well over twice the size of New Zealand – quite a chunk of submarine real estate. Although about 30% of our marine domain is excluded from fish trawling, only a tiny proportion of the oceans are designated marine reserves. There’s a lot to be done in terms of studying and protecting the most special places and deciding which specific areas should be covered is not simple.

Fitchett also says I criticise the farming and forestry industries for their heavy environmental footprint, but “neglect to outline the environmental footprint that would ensue from seabed-mining in the Kermadec region”.

I do not dispute the area’s natural beauty, which is largely a result of its unusual volcanic activity. Nor do I intend to debate the merits of proposals to extract minerals in the Kermadecs, although it’s worth remembering the mining footprint is very small.

I use the example simply to point out that minerals can be a renewable resource. The Kermadecs are not the only region where volcanic vents are continuously depositing minerals and metals on the sea floor. There are huge areas where the movement of tectonic plates creates undersea volcanoes that generate voluminous mineral deposits – across the Pacific Ring of Fire and elsewhere.

Other areas with hydrothermal vents include the South and North Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean.

The oceans are a significant potential source of natural resources and likely to be the next frontier for development. The trick is to be smart and careful about how we do it.

It’s not an option not to develop resources. Nor should we try to keep our neighbourhood pristine and ignore what’s done in other places.

Resource development needs to be a factor in all our activities: from flying in aircraft, driving cars, riding bicycles or even walking on roads, to manufacturing the things we use daily – from a spoon to a laptop.

My point about the environmental footprint of farming and forestry is that we still need to minimise the environmental impact of everything we do – and we are increasingly efficient with our resources – but we can’t have no impact.

Globally, we’re ranked eighth for our abundant natural resources, but they’re under-explored and underdeveloped.

If we can develop them, we’d depend less on imported products – which often come from countries that don’t consider their greenhouse gas emissions.

We need a regulatory and legislative framework to develop resources and build a more productive and competitive economy in an environmentally responsible way.

Having invested in the education of our brightest and best, we don’t want them leaving – which will happen if we don’t build a robust, vibrant economy.

We’re getting smarter at managing environmental impacts – as we must be to manage the demand for resources as our populations grow. Yes, we need some environmental bottom lines, but we also need some economic ones.

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