By - Wayne Linklater 29/01/2018 9

One of the leaders of the Predator-Free movement, Sir Rob Fenwick (Chair of the Predator Free New Zealand Trust and a Director of Predator-Free 2050), described Predator-Free 2050 as a “project born in a leap of faith (Dominion Post). He appears to think the predator-free goal is more like a religion than a science-based conservation project. And, his religion is going to war.

The religious war against pests

Just like a war for his religious belief, Sir Fenwick described his ‘believers’ as “the unsung heroes of this crusade” and an “army of volunteers” and the importance for the future of “helping to attract young people to the campaign.”

He goes on: “It’s pretty obvious we won’t win this battle killing rats and stoats one at a time. There are millions of them and while aerial drops of 1080 are crucially important, we’ll need some new weapons. Crusades spur innovations.” And lets not forget the “battle with possums”.

Its not the first time Sir Fenwick has talked about Predator-Free as if it is a religious war against pests. He has describes it as a “call to arms“, “fight back“, “multi-year mission” and “campaign” by an “army of volunteers” “winning this battle“, with “weapons” on the National Science Challenge – Biological Heritage website.

Sir Rob Fenwick’s religious and warlike rhetoric is revealing. It is also not an isolated case. Conservationists, even its government ministries, routinely describe their beliefs and projects religiously and their work as a war, like the “Battle for our Birds” and “War on Weeds” programmes out of the Department of Conservation. My colleague, Dr. Jamie Steer, has pointed this out in some detail before in an article also worth reading.

Just harmless, popularist words?

But isn’t Sir Fenwick’s choice of words just harmless, populist rhetoric? Why should it concern us?

I think we should be concerned about this populist rhetoric because it is evidence that the Predator Free by 2050 goal:

  1. is irrational and not the deeply science-based policy that biodiversity conservation requires to be successful, and
  2. imposes a reputational risk to the conservation movement in New Zealand and its governance (e.g., to the Department of Conservation).

I will develop each of these ideas in subsequent posts.

9 Responses to “Predator Free 2050 – more like a religious war than science-based conservation policy”

  • Hi Wayne.

    I agree that the rhetoric around this is annoying. I dislike it. But if it’s reasonable to claim that the presence of rhetoric is evidence that the argument being pushed is irrational, is it not at least as reasonable to claim that the presence of rhetoric could also be evidence that the collective audience isn’t capable of rationally assessing an argument?

    I appreciate you disagree about PF2050 being rational, but to me the presence of rhetoric seems more about (rightly or wrongly) marketing to a population that’s possibly more interested in how to pay the rent next week than about whether a long term goal is rational or not. IMHO it’s better to debate the merit of PF2050 on its own objective points than on the presence of rhetoric around it.

    • Wow Mike, well done on the sort of typical patronising illogical comment that we would expect from pro-poisoners. As you seem to have missed the point, I’ll clarify it for you: Wayne’s post is about trying to understand the reasons WHY the poison industry is using religious & emotive language to try to push home its irrational & pseudo-science objective. It’s only possible to see through the deliberately misleading rhetoric (eg 1080 biodegrades) when it’s exposed as such, i.e. the alterior motives involved through a Gov profiteering from a poison industry it funds science to ‘support’ it. This includes alienating any experts who question the ethics of the implicit conflicts of interest.
      It’s time to call a truce & end this insanity. Most importantly, it’s time to be truthful about the harm to our ecology 63 years of aerial poisoning had done. Including human health.

    • Hi Mike – thank you for your comment.

      I think you raise an important point and I do not want to gloss over the fact that explaining the rationale, scientific and otherwise, for any conservation policy can be challenging. So lets develop your point further.

      It is possible that the leaders of Predator-Free 2050 have adopted religious and militaristic rhetoric instead of describing their rationale because either:
      1. they lack the ability to explain the science on which it is based to the wider public in ways that could be convincing: i.e., the “its a difficult, technical subject” problem, or
      2. they assume that the public will not be able to understand their rationale and so seek populist rhetoric instead: i.e., the assumption that the “public are too ‘dumb’ to understand” problem.

      It doesn’t matter which of these is true (and both can be happening), neither of them is a great place for the Predator-Free movement to be starting a relationship with the New Zealand public.
      If neither of them is true, then we are left to conclude, as I do, that they don’t have a convincing science-based argument for Predator-Free 2050 or, at least, their science-based argument is weaker than that for an alternative, more moderate biodiversity policy.

      Thanks again for your comment – great stuff.

      • Hi Wayne. Thanks for the response.

        I hate the rhetoric and I think it’d be wonderful if all this stuff were able to be discussed in calm rational objective ways. I just cannot see how that’s realistic.

        I’m not sold on the ethics of a government using rhetoric, but sometimes I also wonder what would happen if it didn’t. The marketing industry, for example, is directly built on research about how to manipulate large groups of people to choose to do things which they mightn’t otherwise do in their better judgement. Climate Change is a really good example. The rationality of some obvious things which should be done for long term benefit get completely eclipsed by shouting and misinformation and out-of-date information and ulterior motives and so on and so on. Where people are in favour of useful measures regarding climate change, it often has little or nothing to do with a genuine understanding of the issues.

        As nice as it would be, these things which are driven by public opinion so often don’t get decided by facts… but if it’s not a “government” providing the rhetoric, it’s someone else. Today’s media has just another example, with Blackland PR using marketing techniques to influence the clean rivers debate. It’s not about presenting clear and objective facts so people can make up their minds. It’s about trying to convince people to think the same as what someone with a greater stake wants to think.

        In any case I hate rhetoric, but my point is that it’s more of a question of if and when it’s acceptable for the government, or related entities, to use rhetoric to try and convince people of stuff. Whether or not PF2050 is a good idea is a worthwhile topic for debate. There are plenty of people willing to debate it on evidence, as I’m sure you’re aware, but I can’t see how the mere fact that the government engages in rhetoric in front of the general population is strong evidence that PF2050 isn’t worthwhile.

        There’s a completely rational explanation for the rhetoric which, even if disturbing, has nothing to do with the credibility of PF2050: Rhetoric and marketing, when used in line with known techniques, is more effective and compelling for convincing people to think and do things than rational arguments, largely because humans aren’t entirely rational beings. If the government didn’t engage in rhetoric, at the very least alongside evidence-based arguments, then those arguments would be a much higher risk of being eclipsed by a party with ulterior motives who simply employs someone to change people’s minds without evidence.

        So by all means criticise the evidence-based arguments. I just think claiming there aren’t any because there’s also rhetoric is kind’a vacuous.

  • I agree with Wayne, thank you for writing this article, and subsequent analyses. I was going to do something similar so you have saved me a job! By using religious and militaristic language, Sir Fenwick is employing age-old marketing techniques, and by linking conservation to New Zealand’s identity, it includes an appeal to patriotism. This helps unravel the psychology of why so many people you would think would know better, have got sucked into this mass poisoning paradigm.

  • “Halo effect “is one term I particularly dislike. Used in Wellington to describe the expanding lines of bait stations. Bait stations that contain highly residual brodifacoum poison applied constantly with lashings of religious fervour.
    Walking through a bait stationed reserve one day I passed a dead possum lying spread-eagled in open grassland. Nothing unusual, except it had been dead a few days but was untouched by scavengers. Then I realised: no hawks, anywhere.
    Without hawks you don’t have a functioning ecosystem but somehow you have a bright light around your head.
    In all my time living in the bush(most of my life) I never met a millionaire yet now they seem to know everything I don’t.
    Money and Nature don’t mix. Religion, science and money are just different ways of getting up from the same bed.

    • Andy,

      Swamp Harriers* (not “hawks”) have only existed in NZ for about 1000 years; they didn’t exist in NZ before Maori caused the extinction of the endemic Eyle’s Harrier. As a non-endemic species, they have limited conservation value, are not absolutely protected, and certainly aren’t required for a “functioning ecosystem”. They even cause problems for rare endemic species; there have been several instances in which swamp harriers have preyed on a rare and endangered endemic bird species known as the North Island Kokako; swamp harriers have killed them on Kapiti Island, Tiritiri Matangi Island, and elsewhere.


  • It seems pedanticism is alive and well in Nu Tireni, if Mike McGavin and Shimon Glass’s nit-picking and microcosmic opinion pieces are anything to go by.

    What ever you do guys, dont talk to the Don Quixotic actual quest of Predator Free 2050.
    And particularly the erudite author’s claim that PF2050 is not scientifically based and most importantly, Mr Linklater’s suggestion that it poses significant “reputational risk” to governance.

    Lets instead attatch some irelevant reference to support the militirisation of “conservation speak” ( matched only by Cons Depts recent unlawful use of unlicenced ‘security guards’ to bash retirees lawfully investigating their shopping centre being used as a long term 1080 storage yard). Hardly compelling argument Mr Mc Gavin….

    But the comlete paucity of any meaningful response to Mr Linklaters well researched opinion piece is best demonstrated by Mr Glass’s less than magnifying epistle.

    Erroneously mixing his timelines (been here “about 1000 years” “arriving after Maori exterminated the Eyles Harrier”) – so how long have Maori actually been here Mr Glass ? He then has the temerity to correct Mr Blick’ s well accepted (Harrier) ‘hawk’ terminology.

    But not with the latin nonclemature. Characteristically Mr Glass suggedss “swamp harrier”.

    Well if we want to get that pedantic i would suggest “kahu” (far more respectful, evocative even). And Maaori was still the official language of Nu Tireni last time i looked.

    But interesting that in response to an article suggesting Cons Dept were using military terminology to galvanise support from the general public to cover their lack of any scientific underpinningof the ‘campaign’., Mr Glass resorts immediately to such everyday colonial terminology.

    Interesting to also note the almost complete absence of any mana whenua support for current and proposed untargeted aerial poisoning.

    Only matched by a similar dearth of the feminine view in support of this universally economically wasteful and environmentally unsafe indiscriminate practice.

    Is this because its just a priviledged “white boy” (read Richie McCaw) buisness opportunity ?

    Or does it have something to do with an overall feminine perspective that is (and always will be) fundamentally philisophically opposed to having a poison whose own label warns ” Avoid pollution of any water supply, may damage fertility and the unborn child” dropped over their water catchment ?