On news of the baffling Cabinet decision last week to snub our “best friend” the USA over Antarctic ocean protection a couple of old maxims came to mind: Cicero’s saying that, “An enemy at the gates is less formidable than the traitor within” and Oscar Wilde’s description of a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

But I wonder even if Cabinet ministers Brownlee, Joyce and Carter do know the price of anything if their purported reason for scuppering an alliance with the US on Antarctic Ocean protection were, as the NZ Herald reports, “on the grounds that it was not consistent with the Government’s economic growth objectives.”

Remembering that our pro-environment reputation is an asset on which our export industries capitialise in hard dollars every day, the decision to favour the interests of a marginal part-time toothfish fishery worth a mere 1% of New Zealand’s fishing economy, presumes that the damage done to the economic value of our good reputation is less than that.

NZ Herald Cartoon

Cartoon courtesy of the NZH and Rod Emmerson

There is surely a strong case to be made on economic grounds alone that we should be seen to be protecting the Ross Sea as a priority over fishing it.  Kept intact the Ross Sea is a globally valuable scientific laboratory.  And is not long term diplomacy with the USA another (rare) good reason for trimming a nominal fishery?

There is a spirit of anti-environmental policy in our present administration which is centred on an interpretation of economics that has lead to the mine, drill, frack, cut, sell, build-a-road-through-it and ‘let the devil take the hindmost’ strategies that are the extent of our Government’s development inspiration in nearly four years of power.

An economy that relies on the steady degradation, destruction and using-up of its natural resources cannot by definition bring lasting human prosperity.  This point is aside from Joyce, Brownlee et al missing the new carbon reality: that those economies most adaptive to the inevitable low carbon future will be the most prosperous.  Investing in more oil, coal, gas and cars is antithetical to low carbon adaptivity and therefore isn’t smart economics for the 21st century.  One problem is that the entire approach is derived from a time before we knew climate change was real.  In the light of that scientific reality and the extent of the threat it presents we should be doing our economics differently.

Meanwhile the extractive strategy frames the choice of prosperity as in opposition to good environmental stewardship.  The premise is that, looking after the environment is a balance and if we want to be prosperous we’ve got to sacrifice a little conservation estate for mining, the odd iconic coast for a US style freeway (see Save Kapiti) and the security of un-oiled beaches for some offshore deep sea drilling.  It might even sound reasonable.

The principle of environmental stewardship is rationalised away with the necessity of economic growth even when that means 1% of our fishing industry trumps the most pristine marine ecosystem on earth.  Then it shows itself as not rational or reasonable at all, but ideological.

It is neither inherent nor inevitable that a National Government behave this way.  There are other wiser more long-term instincts within their caucus that lack the ascendancy.  As David Farrar illustrates, you don’t have to be a rabid greenie to think that gazetting the heart of the Antarctic Ross Sea as a no-fishing zone makes good sense.

As to the enemy within, to paraphrase Cicero, “the traitor within: speaks in accents familiar to his victims, infiltrates the halls of government and rots the soul of a nation.”

If we accept the premise that environmental stewardship is part of a cultural trait then perhaps something more profound is manifest in these strategies of sacrificing pieces of forest, beach and unspoiled ocean; in the filleting of the Resource Management Act and the invention the EEZ (Extractive Economic Zone) legislation.  However thoughtless or intentional the policies are, they add up to an attack on something essential in us.  Our sense of self-identity that is associated with the integrity of the natural wonders and living heritage around us.  Our attachment to place, and that part of our cultural values; the collective heart which holds true that land matters more than money.

The anti-environmental strategies of our current government are in a sense an attack on fundamental values that are deeper than partisan affiliations.  they are an attack on who we are.  We are those who know better than to trash our place for a quick buck.  Joyce et al are traitors to this principle.  I wouldn’t even say their intent is necessarily sinister.  They just don’t get it - they don’t think it matters.  But it is that wilful indifference, leading to the habitual sidelining of environment, that makes it dangerous.  

The poisonousness of the presiding attitude is no more starkly demonstrated than by the recent decision on Antarctica’s oceans.   It is more significant than the litany of eco-errors closer to home exactly because, I suggest, we are not owners but guardians of the Antarctic Ross Sea.  In a strange sense we owe a greater duty of care to something that is not really ours – but a place we have been entrusted with the care of on behalf of everyone.

In the role of guardian New Zealand has become the wolf.  We have just made the simple choice of our own nominal fiscal value over the worlds immeasurable ecological value.   Nor is there a balance being struck – as Key will try to claim – but the following of a simple rule that economy trumps ecology every time, even when it’s 1% of your fishery versus the most pristine ocean on earth.  Could the madness of this approach be any more clear?

If we would name the traitors within (as the New Zealand Herald did this weekend), they would appear to be Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlee and David Carter.

They blithely assassinate clean green New Zealand in a policy of death by 1000 cuts.

"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague."

- Marcus Tullius Cicero