New Zealand has a comprehensive piece of legislation (Resource Management Act 1991) by which the use and development of ‘resources’ is managed. The current government is attempting to reform this legislation to make it more amenable for development interests. Corporate lobby groups are active with the government in pushing a case for reform. They essentially desire a Resource Development Act focused on money and the short-term, rather than a Resource Management Act focused on broader values and the long-term.
This article was written in response to an opinion piece by the CEO of the lobby group BusinessNZ.
I blame philosophy. I see phrases like “moving forward” and words like “prosperity” and “resources” and “development”, and have to ask, what does it all mean?
The CEO of BusinessNZ Phil O’Reilly (Dom Post 13th Jan 2015) calls for what would be essentially a Resource Development Act to replace the Resource Management Act (RMA). He exposes his mechanical worldview – we are, along with the rocks, mere grist for the mill – and it is a wrong and dangerous one.
But ‘prosperity’ is not a matter of merely ‘developing resources’ to bring them to the factory and the market through the command and control actions of technically-trained human robots. Nor does his implicit faith in commerce and markets to think, decide, allocate and distribute the promised manna bear any relation to the real world in which we live.
The commoditising of life and land is the very opposite of where we ought to be heading if we want high wellbeing for all. The inevitable consequence of the industrial commoditisation agenda is the encouragement of power, privilege and short-term exploitation, as well as the discouragement of meaning, morality and wisdom.
The worldwide failures of this type of big-scale commodity thinking has led to calls for a more people- and place-centred version of ‘development’. There are too many names to quote, but they point the way out of our slide back into at best the dark satanic mills of the 19th Century, and at worst another social and environmental collapse brought about by our apparently unlimited ability to push our systems beyond the brink. We’ve collapsed many times before, but without the means until now to really destroy humanity. Understanding collapse ought to be a prerequisite for economists and those that play with money. A requirement to read a few great books might also help them develop a broader and longer perspective.
The likely-temporary prosperity that would result from Mr O’Reilly’s type of development would be a corporate dystopia suiting the narrow interests of a few who live with little concern for the future of either humanity or the planet within which we live and breathe. Worse, their inability to see especially the long connections that bite back, coupled with short-term personal obsessions, will inevitably push our biophysical and social systems to the tipping point of failure.
Which is why we need the RMA. It remains one of the only community counters we have to the excesses of short-term avarice by politically and commercially powerful interests. It is also admirable in its structure and intent. Yes, have enterprise, harvest, invest, but there are bottom lines we will ensure in the interests of our future society and the values within our landscapes. Any concerns there may be are more to do with local governance and application than the Act itself. The case for reform is singularly avaricious.
There are those who believe that we don’t need the RMA because ‘the market will provide.’ With long-term natural systems and functioning societies it most certainly does not. If more money now is the measure, and future generations discounted by an exponential, then a financial case can be made to mine slow-cycling resources as fast and as cheaply as possible – never mind people or place, or their descendants. It also makes perfect financial sense to simplify and destroy complex forests, fisheries and soils that take many decades to cycle and renew, and at best turn them into large-scale factories of high-input hydroponics and control – short-rotation plantations, fish farms, irrigated factory farms. Which is why financiers ought to be avoided when considering long-term issues like the proverbial plague.
W.H. Auden has a far greater understanding of exploitation than the failed – but still strangely living – dogma of free market neoliberal economics.
A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.
A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
As with finite and slow-revolving natural systems, so it is for communities. Disproportionately powerful interests will tend to exploit for a short-term increase in profit margins, which is partly why Adam Smith disliked the exclusive trade-rights of aristocrats, and those 18th Century corporations that pale before the transnational corporations of today in terms of their political and commercial influence. Conveniently forgotten, that part of Adam Smith’s writings.
The consequences of social exploitation are similar to the exploitation of natural systems. A feedback will happen, but it will likely come after the perpetrators are dead – their children’s children may be the ones to face the angry mob – or on other parts of society, or on a society elsewhere. The higher you discount the future, the more ‘rational’ exploitation becomes.
The primary purpose of the RMA is in a sense to bequeath our children legacies rather than an exploited wasteland. It is a vital piece of legislation, more so now when the rise of largely amoral commercial interests around the world seem intent on leveraging for yet more power and the right to exploit and degrade for the benefit of a few.
Chris Perley has a background in primary sector and regional strategy, policy, research, and operational management across forestry, agriculture, community, economy and the environment.
 Herman Daly, Leopold Kohr, Jane Jacobs, J.K. Gibson-Graham, C.S. Holling, Manfred Max-Neef, Robert Putnam, E.F. Schumacher, Amartya Sen, Vandana Shiva to name a few.
 The strange non-death of neoliberal economics has shades of the non-death of communism before the ‘exclamation point’ of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the next, bigger, deadlier global financial collapse?
 W.H. Auden Bucolics, II: Woods
Well done CP.
Will read it PROPERLY when I have some rainy reading time.
Appreciate the observation of the RMA being degraded into a RDA. Eek.
Look forward to viz a viz sooner than later.
Greetz from AMc
YES, spot on as usual!
I don’t think there are many who really understand the Acts purpose, which is what we should debate (rather than the Act itself.)
For me the Act’s purpose has always been to constrain development within limits. And I always supported the shift of focus from activities to effects; activities are debated in a transient frame of reference whereas effects must reference a broader, more universal, and timeless frame of references. I also like the Acts purpose in reflecting the best of religious teachings; your freedom is constrained by the need to consider the effects of your actions on others. Before we had the RMA conservation was just another activity that competed for space. What the government wants to do is return to an activities based approach where sustainability competes with development within some common frame of reference (an economic one.)
God only knows when we will learn.
Thanks Clive. I think we will learn when we get a paradigm shift that equates with the Enlightenment in scale! Away from the mechanical deterministic paradigm of the last Enlightenment to a complex adaptive integrated systems paradigm of the next one.