Recently I’ve been doing a little popular writing relating to my research here and there. And one of these articles happened to get the attention of Radio New Zealand interviewer Kim Hill who invited me onto her show for a chat (read: interrogation).
It turned out to be a really fruitful experience, and you can still listen to it online if you like. It generated a tonne of feedback and helped to set up a whole lot of really useful connections for me. And I just want to use some of the public feedback from that interview now as a sort of lead in to what I want to talk to you about.
Here’s a sample of some of the more positive feedback sent through to Kim:
‘Hi Kim, everything your guest said about respect for all living creatures is correct’
‘I have never heard anyone explain a defence of introduced species as well as Dr Steer’
‘Thank you for giving room for this kind of ‘environmental heresy’. We need to hear more of it so we can have a proper, multi-dimensional debate on these crucial issues’
‘This man has something very important to say about how we as a nation view the world – at home and abroad’
One of the most common themes of that feedback was that people found the conversation refreshing.
But here’s a sample of some of the not so nice ones too:
‘mr steer’s arguments are almost all WRONG. i am also with gareth morgan with regard to his stand on cats. Thumbs down jamie steer’
‘Re dr Jamie Speer: Who [da F..] IS this guy?’
‘Can we put this guy on the next container load of possums we send back to Australia??’
‘Pull the lever and drop this guy down the chute. Let him feed the Norwegian rats in the pit. Eco-science my eye!’
Many people thought it poor form to show any kind of support for introduced wildlife and were really quite defensive of their biodiversity. Of course ‘their’ biodiversity was often taken to be native biodiversity almost exclusively.
The last quote above is probably the most symptomatic of the various phobias and anxieties people have about introduced wildlife. It’s fair to say we have some real poets out there in the community…
But again it just underlines the difficulties with having conversations in this space. A lot of people are very afraid at the prospect of our views on nature changing over the coming decades.
Here’s a few more of the same:
‘Everything is criticism and “…so interesting in this context”. My context boyo is that I HATE possums!!’
‘Death to all possums in NZ’
‘The only good possum is a Dead possum’
‘Oh please! The possum and stoat problem is such a threat to native birds…Focus on these two relatively recent arrivals. And run them over with abandon when you can’
I think it’s accurate to say that the poor old possum is probably the most maligned animal in New Zealand. Honestly, if you want to provoke a New Zealander tell him that you love possums, or even that you’re indifferent toward them. It tends to elicit the most visceral, and unfortunately often-xenophobic responses, even from usually quite measured people in this country.
With us or against us
These sorts of furious, quasi-religious passions for conservation often characterise our discussions about nature in New Zealand. And a lot of them really do emanate from the top down, whether it be from academics, from politicians, or from senior managers. As I’ve already mentioned, it means that it is very difficult to have conversations about conservation in New Zealand.
New Zealanders often have this very ‘with us or against us’ attitude with regards to this stuff. You either agree that this is the right way, or you’re my enemy – with very little room in between.
Predator Free New Zealand, or the Government’s recent endorsement of it, is a good example of that. If you’re on side with it, the framing is that you’re really ambitious and imaginative, and boy have you got a lot of really great ideas. But if you want to raise any kinds of objections: you’re a denier, you’re a dissenter, you’re a contrarian, or you’re a loser. It’s one or the other, so you’d better choose which ‘side’ you’re on.
It’s deeply concerning to me that the most frequent comment I got from my positive interview feedback – aside from ‘refreshing’ – was that I was ‘brave’ or even ‘courageous’. Because while that’s very flattering, what they’re essentially saying is you would need to be brave to talk about our basic assumptions and objectives for conservation in New Zealand, even when doing so through the most orthodox channels possible.
To me that really demonstrates how unbalanced we’ve got in New Zealand; how far from the bounds of reasonable and considered conversation we’ve actually strayed. People in the industry, in particular, are afraid that they will lose funding or even their employment if they offer different views on conservation. And I think that they are often very well justified in their fears. It’s a real problem we have in this country, a real sacred cow, and it’s something we need to talk about both as an industry and as a society more generally.
Let’s talk about it
Starting tomorrow, I’m going to offer up ten beliefs/assumptions/understandings about conservation in NZ as discussion points moving forward, and provide you with some thoughts on each of them. Again, I’ll just reiterate that this is not a summary of my PhD research, though it does, of course, draw on it.
I’m going to offer a pretty superficial and rapid treatment of each of them knowing that I’m not going to be able to give any of them much justice. But in many respects, I see that as a good thing because it gives us the freedom not only for you to offer your own thoughts in the comments but also to promote a little bit of banter more generally.
I’d love to discuss and debate these with you. And I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about some of these things – I’m not saying that there is necessarily one right way to think about this stuff.
What I would say though is if I’m right, or at least in some sort of ballpark, on at least one or two of these things, then I think it might show that we’ve got a little more thinking to do in this space.
Photo: Maggie Barry and Kim Hill. © Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, PAColl-7327-1-042 /4785. Used with permission.