Regional Development – Thinking Short & Narrow or Long and Broad

Wairarapa MP Alistair Scott’s opinion piece regarding the environmental record of New Zealand’s National led government (Hawke’s Bay Today 26th July 2015) is so full of errors, misrepresentations and clichés that it is difficult to know where to start.

At its core, it is clear that Mr Scott’s thinking is locked within an industrial and commodity approach to our region; its people, its land and its economy. On the face of it, his argument for ‘balance’ gets a nod. Balance is a word like ‘efficient’, or ‘sustainable’ – all motherhood and apple pie.

But what lurks beneath is a view of the world that sees land use as ‘industry’; and land and people as ‘resources’. Substitution, allocation and choice are the thinking; and therefore there is a clear choice to be made between our economy and our environment; a trade-off wrapped up in the spin doctoring clichés of ‘balance’.

Pit mining

If you do not see the potential for synergies between your people, your environment and your profit, then you tear them apart and call it progress. You do not build legacies and synergies – the cultural and environmental lodestones that keep us whole – but undermine them. Anything that may happen in the long-term like climate change are discounted or ignored in favour of the deal on the table – the reduction in the cost of the labour resource, the negotiated right to pollute, the new large industrial box championed as ‘development’. You tell people you are doing well, when in fact you are degrading their future.

This deal-making thinking caused past civilisations to fall. The Sumerians gave us writing, cities, irrigation, bread for the cities … and deserts. The clearing of the hill country forests, the subsequent aridity, floods, erosion and sedimentation of canals, the salt build up in the soil – all eventually led to the collapse of food production and the whole civilisation. But these environmental realities move as slow long-term feedbacks, well beyond the reach of markets. Even seeing, let alone seriously considering them, requires breadth, thinking out in generations and across ecological cycles, and a government with a vision that doesn’t just say leave it to the markets.


The markets are good at focusing on the relatively short-term feedbacks of supply, demand and finances of grain and bread production as well as immediate technical solutions like dredging silt and digging more canals. Commercial contracts. Technofixes. Fiddling while Rome burns, very slowly.

What we do not want to see in our political leaders is any indication that they can only think in the space of the grain markets or techno-fix. More than that, we really do not need any latter-day Ozymandias telling us to look upon their great works, while driving us into a future where… “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.


Short-term and narrow thinking is bad enough, but add irreverence toward the greater global forces within which we live, and we risk catastrophe.

Such thinking is also a nonsense because it closes our eyes to what could be. New Zealand’s colonial approach of growing more, ever cheaper in order to feed Britain was at least bearable until Britain entered the European Community in 1973. But the continuation of that commodity production thinking is now completely bewildering. We see the evidence of that today within the dairy, forestry, wool and meat sectors.

It’s a broken strategy 40 years past its used-by date, but the industrialists cannot think themselves out of it. And so we still hear calls to producing more, ever cheaper, and to invest in more technology that doesn’t shift the game off commodities – in fact the opposite with GE – and other industrial solutions like large scale corporate-structured irrigation.

Iowa Farm

It is particularly bad thinking for regions. Our future is not in degrading our lands and communities to make Auckland or New York richer in the short-term.

The alternative is not to think in trade-offs but in building land use and social systems that complement a high value and vibrant economy, selling to those who willingly pay for sustainable, high quality, safe produce. There is both research and examples around the world of better social justice, mitigation of climate change, a fully functioning environment and a vibrant economy. It doesn’t have to be an inevitable road to Mordor and latter-day serfdom.

How landscapes work

Besides rethinking land use, we can focus on encouraging start-ups, emphasising locally owned small & medium enterprises, and applauding continual differentiation across and down value chains. Development thinkers like Manfred Max-Neef and Jane Jacobs all advocate this local people-led and environment-led approach.


By arguing that all is well with our current environmental and economic strategies, Mr Scott does not demonstrate vision, but more of the same failing model. Meanwhile, our own version of the buildup of Sumerian sediment and salt – including but not limited to climate change – continues.

France Terroir

This is not an issue solved by being blind to continued degradation, justified as ‘balance’. We need, and can, address them with multiple positive outcomes; but we won’t get there with clichés and spin.

Chris Perley

This entry was posted in Building Regional Economies, Land Use, Resilience Thinking, Socio-ecological Systems, Thought Pieces and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Regional Development – Thinking Short & Narrow or Long and Broad

  1. Angus Macdonald says:

    Thanks Chris. I appreciate your clarity, passion and panache. May wisdom continue to find voice in all the difficult places its so urgently needed. Cheers from Angus

  2. just Doi says:

    Well said again bro, your words resonate in my soul and express things i never knew i didn’t know. ta.

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