The Renaissance of an Ethos of Care

It is now more and more a forgotten fact that much of the effort by the New Zealand state in planting trees in the landscape had as its primary goal the ‘protection’ of some social and environmental value.  These values were non-tradable; they didn’t provide a direct return as ready cash.  That is the way of value.  Much of that past tree establishment was about maintaining some quality, some capacity, some potential that does not sit easily on a balance sheet.  It was much more to do with care and a better New Zealand, then merely dollars in a spreadsheet: An Ethos of Care.

We need it back again.

Often those qualities we cared to protect were of importance to the wider community, or to those downstream, as much or more than they might be to the owner of any land.  It is in the realm of this type of widely connected, networked, non-capital value that the market and dollar-drenched spreadsheets is such a poor arbiter of what we ought to do.  The market is not wise in scope beyond the short term and a traded dollar; and even then is narrow of wit.  Land and community cannot be known merely through columns of figures.

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In the past, the landscape value most at issue related to protecting soil and water; soil for its productive and economic potential, and water-borne soil in its potential to create hazard and to lose productive potential somewhere else, usually downstream.  It was recognised as a problem well over a hundred years ago.  Prime Ministers such as Stafford and Vogel from the 1870s were concerned about the role of forests to protect the land, and those new settlements that tended to be located on the plains below.  But that didn’t stop our forefathers clearing the forest and shrubland from much of our hard hill country to put it into the new god, grass.  Much of the cleared land was the sort of country that in Europe and North America would have been kept in forests, or at least allowed to regenerate after overzealous clearing.

In our curiously grass-obsessed culture, many now argue that we went too far.  They look to the efforts to control high country scree slopes using mountain pines such as Pinus contorta as being both of debatable merit, and of literally sowing the seeds for future problems.  Catchment boards were also accused of being overzealous in planting erodible hillsides in now-problem poplars in an attempt to maintain grazing.  These are easy criticisms to make.  We are a young country, and when you are dealing with the time periods associated with trees, the mistakes take a few more years to become obvious.

And we have made mistakes.  The question is whether we are learning, and making things better over time, or whether we have slipped back over the last 30 odd years.

In the past, the intent was right; perhaps not in the high country, but very much so within erodible hard hill country where the loss of woody vegetation creates one problem compounding upon another.  Many of the soils that extend from the Wairarapa hills up to the East Coast, and through the Manawatu and Wanganui hill country are based on sedimentary and highly erodible mudstones and sandstones.  High rainfall combined with steep terrain over sometimes as little as 20 degrees of slope, and soils can slip off slopes like a block of wet soap; a recipe for erosion.

The compounding and cascading domino effects are treated by some – especially those who only know dollars – as surprising outcomes, no matter how predictable they are to those dealing in wider land use policy.  They are not surprising.  The linkages are obvious to those that know land and community.

You lose your hill country soil, and with the soil gone you lose the capacity of the hill country to hold and store water associated with quite significant rain events of 50 mm or so.  With the forests gone, the problem is exacerbated.  The strength of the slope is significantly reduced.

The soils can then no longer store the size of storm events that we periodically get in these hard hill North Island areas, nor can they can buffer the flow into the river system, and extend the run of streams.  You trend to the violent dynamic of a flashflood boom-bust rushing wadi, followed by an empty dry gulch.

In up to moderate storm events, deep, porous soils with high water holding capacity will significantly reduce the quick overland flow that can come from shallow, compacted grassland soils; which is like rain on a concrete face.  That quickflow and loss of woody habitat creates yet more erosion (a classic positive feedback of more creating more creating more …. until collapse) which links through to more social and economic loss to the plains below.  To know, you have to link.  To link, you have to understand the system.  To understand the system, you have to be able to think in a wider space than some silo speciality.  You have to have a sense of the whole, and have the ethos that cares about consequences.

Fast run-off also affects the soil fertility store, the carbon store, and the biotic life on land and in our water systems often buried in silt.  You can end up with a shallow, droughty, structureless soil, with little water retained in the landscape.

The storm events of 1988 (Bola), 2004 (Manawatu-Wanganui) and 2011 (Cape Kidnappers-
Kairakau coast, Hawke’s Bay) have resulted in little that could be considered positive. The East Coast scheme has probably created more animosity toward trees than acceptance of them.  The 2004 Manawatu-Wanganui floods were a classic example of a system without much of a rudder.  During the storm, 200 million tonnes of sediment slipped off farmed hill slopes.

We once had a government knowledge system that linked research, policy, and the facilitation of localised best practice.  imagesNow we have isolated hierarchical rumps, many so specialised into blinkered silos of non-thought and competition that they are incommunicative within themselves let alone with others.  The further up the hierarchies developed by shallow and narrow Treasury minds, the less linkages are understood, and the less they care about consequences beyond the immediate contractual milestones.

What we have lost.  Where wind and localised erosion was a problem, the now defunct catchment boards had excellent professional and practical staff learning from and providing advice to land managers.  They were backed by the also defunct National Water and Soil Conservation Organisation (NWASCO), the Ministry of Works and Development, the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), the Forest Research Institute.  The relationships between researcher and advisor were personal as well as professional, with a self-supporting ethos of both care and responsibility.  Now the links are ‘contractual’, and crown research ‘business managers’ ensure you leave your ethos at the door.

This policy approach of active local and central government involvement – with a well established network between research, policy, and practice, where each learned off the others, and where the will and capacity to cooperate was strong and continually reinforced – because people cared – is now considerably reduced.  We used to work with people; now we impose a regulation, or assume some market instrument will imagesprovide the answer.  Knowledge is now much more hierarchical than networked, despite the efforts at participation, because the central policy structures are set up that way, with control, direction, and dis (dys?)-integrated isolation the Modus Operandi.

We are no longer as wise because, rather than an integrated, open-discourse on issues and solutions down to the local, we now have empty clichés such as “the market will provide” expressed as some axiomatic religious catechism.  We need to change that before we can hope to change the arrogance of isolated technocrats.  Attempts at collaboration will tend to be token without new thinking being core to the way people and the public sector work.

The old catchment board functions are now nominally provided by the regional council structure, but the capacity to respond to events varies widely between councils.  Some have adequate professional staff, knowledgeable about land management, able to relate to local people, and able to input to local policy.  Other councils have few people with such capacity, and those that do have little influence on policy, all compounded by management structures that emphasis bureaucratic task-orientated box ticking over adaptive, actively thinking, place-based action.


Perhaps most reduced of all is the ability to coordinate and cooperate across the many environmental, social and economic issues that relate to land.

The loss of soil through erosion was the big protection issue of the past.  That focus has shifted.  Currently we have many more environmental issues – all linked to the capacities and qualities of our social and economic life – that are raising their heads with no obvious system that can coordinate the whole.  Biodiversity, but only if it’s indigenous, has been the issue of the last 25 years since 1987.  It is almost as though we dropped the soil conservation ball in order to pick up the biodiversity one.  Multitasking is not valued apparently.

Now we have a sharply rising and immediate concern for water quality, and associated recreational values, particularly as affected by intensive land use.  The issue of soil degradation, as distinct from erosion, is related to that same trend.  Over the last 15 years, the links between climate, land use intensification, and stores of carbon have been on the rise.  The prospects of droughts and floods have raised the importance once again, of landscapes that can slow, store and detain water – not in dams, but in the landscape itself.

And now the issue of future energy balances is well above the horizon, though there are still those who live in denial of a constrained future, and seek only to burn the furnace ever brighter on the runaway train without thought of any approaching cliff.

If we look to the coordination of these issues within their own environmental domain, let alone linking them to our social and economic futures, then our government and institutional structures seem woefully inadequate.  DoC have been underfunded, but also have a poor reputation when talking with land owners as fellow colleagues for mutual benefit.  They are too detached from the potential for mutual benefit because single function reserves are aligned against single function production as the only two options.  Where then, do we put the fence.  The conflict occurs because between farmer and preservationist, neither mindset is prepared to shift to one that can encompass part of the other.  Silos and false Treasury assumptions of the ‘efficiency’ of single function myopia creates that impasse.  Neither can accommodate the others’ point of view.  DoC have little incentive to integrate other environmental issue besides indigenous biodiversity managed in preserves – energy, carbon, ecosystem services to land and community, climate change, water detention, soil function.  They also have a reputation of favouring regulation (“thou shalt not ….”) as a policy approach when the real gains come from value change (from both sides) and reinforcement, itself requiring integrative thinking.


Integrated systems thinking is perhaps the greatest imperative, destroyed by the mechanical and self-centred world of Treasury economists and their large corporate backers.  Environment, economy, society and culture are all linked, however dys-integrated the ‘reforms’ since 1984 were, premised on a competitive silo model.  And within each domain – environment and society (which includes the economy) – the linkages also flourish.  The environment is a strongly linked system where landscape functions of biodiversity, ecosystem services, water detention, water quality, soil conservation, energy demand and carbon balance are all mutually supporting.  

You can design a landscape that does all of it.  And more.  Realising our economic and cultural potential is strongly – and positively – linked with our environmental capacity.  The silo minds do not realise this, and so destroy that potential to which they are blind.  

Many in the Ministry of Primary Industries (whose name indicates how they see land as an industrial machine) think woody vegetation within farmed landscapes as some sacrifice to their favoured green grass god, and suggest – if anything – yet more separate silos of radiata pine as they lift their eyes from the financial spreadsheet.  The Ministry for the Environment seems to have lost the heart it once had, with the best keeping their heads down, and the management peopled by ex-Treasury economists who are taught to see dollars in models.

The regional councils vary from excellent to awful, some gallantly performing in spite of the lack of integration with research and central government policy. The research structure imposed in 1992 is an expensive, bureaucratic, inflexible, and isolating charade. Getting any coordination and cooperation through to policy and practice is hard enough; let alone getting them to talk together.

Time for a change. But first we have to change the ideas that dominate policy from dis-integrated money-affirming mechanics, to integrated, life-affirming connected systems.  We need some capacity to coordinate the whole that is currently woefully lacking.  Do we need a Land Commission?  Or at least think about it – and by ‘think’ I mean also recognise neo-liberal Treasury economists as expounding a fundamentalist faith that affirms power and money, not long-term life.  Their irrational ideas are very much a part of the problem, not the solution.

Such a rethink represents a Rennaisance of an Ethos of Care; to legacy building, to integrity, to opportunity, to thought, to a resilient and value-based future, to civilisation.


Chris Perley



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1 Response to The Renaissance of an Ethos of Care

  1. Brian Turner says:

    Another impressive piece. Would you mind if I forwarded it to a couple of regional councillors down here?



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