Max Harris on the unavoidable centrality of environmental politics

This is an extract from The New Zealand Project, a new title by All Souls Fellow Max Harris. The book addresses a wide range of political and socioeconomic issues, and essentially calls for a paradigm shift – towards truly progressive political thinking and practice, and an economic framework robust enough to deliver security to people at a time of great and multifaceted change.

Max is delivering the Michael King Memorial Lecture THIS Friday May 19 at the Auckland Writers Festival.


Maintaining a good environment is central to everything else that I have written about. Without a climate human beings can live in, we cannot pursue an independent foreign policy or a principled approach to justice; without clean water, we cannot live from day-to-day, let alone reconceptualise the future of work. The environment is also fundamental to New Zealand history and identity. Why else would an anthology of our best songs be called Nature’s Best, inspired by Wayne Mason’s memorable refrain, ‘Nature/enter me’? We are associated internationally with the breathtaking landscapes that appeared in The Lord of the Rings movies. Some of our best-known art captures the natural world: Colin McCahon’s stark paintings of dimpled hills, or Lisa Reihana’s 2015 panoramic video work In Pursuit of Venus, depicting encounters between Europeans and Polynesians against an almost cartoonishly beautiful backdrop (drawing on an early-nineteenth-century wallpaper).

So why are we talking about the environment only now rather than at the outset of this book? Part of the answer is that addressing the challenges of environmental politics and policy requires an integrated approach: an approach that understands our politics as a kind of ecosystem in which various challenges are interconnected. It requires rethinking of, and redoubled action on, economic policy, indigenous issues and the design of our political institutions. It is easier to discuss the environment in this book, therefore, once these other areas of policy have been analysed.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Here’s an example of what I’m saying: the writer and anthropologist Jason Hickel has pointed out that climate change is partially caused by an excessive focus in many economies on GDP growth as a primary political goal. A shift away from GDP as a measure of progress (and an accompanying questioning of the ideal of aggressive growth) – which we have already touched on in Chapter 4 – might be helpful in developing the mindset that is needed to address climate change.

The interconnectedness of policy challenges is one theme of this book; indeed, that is why this book has aimed to range across policy areas as diverse as foreign policy, the economy, justice and the environment. But the other core themes of this book – the need for a renewal of values-based politics, the importance of decolonisation and the centrality of Māori world views to New Zealand policy solutions, the significance of the state in economic and social policy, and the imperative to boost people power – are also especially important in the sphere of environmental policy and politics.

“A shift away from GDP as a measure of progress might be helpful in developing the mindset that is needed to address climate change.”

We know that tapping into people’s values is crucial for mobilising political action on the environment. The campaign for New Zealand to be nuclear-free demonstrates this, but empirical evidence backs up New Zealand history. As the WWF has said, ‘simply “re-stating the science”, or underscoring the “common sense” of taking mitigating action is unlikely to help much in stimulating involvement of a wider constituency of people in debate about responses to anthropogenic climate change’. According to research done by the Cultural Cognition Project, moves ‘to flood the public with as much sound data as possible’ are misguided, because if ‘the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values’, the data ‘is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence’. What is needed instead is an appeal to values (grounded in factual accuracy), which ‘can have a profound influence on people’s motivation to engage with bigger-than-self problems’.

Thus, the approach in this book – to aim to make the values of care, community and creativity central in New Zealand politics – chimes with what research says is important for action on environmental issues. The specific values of care, community and creativity are useful in this context, since action on the environment requires deep care for nature, an interest in the long-term survival of the human community, and creative policy solutions.

Throughout this book, much has been made of the need for a decolonisation process to be initiated, as a part of which there is an imperative to integrate Māori world views into policy solutions – because Māori world views hold much that is relevant to the unique needs of Aotearoa New Zealand, because to integrate Māori world views into politics is to give full effect to biculturalism, and because these world views mark out what is distinctive about this country. Adopting a values-based approach to politics is itself influenced by te ao Māori, since Māori dispute resolution is centred around values.

Guaranteeing that Māori world views are given prominence within environmental policy and politics – best achieved by ensuring that Māori are in positions of leadership and decision-making – is particularly valuable for this sphere of policy and politics. As Andrea Tunks has explained, the Māori focus on the interconnectedness of all things provides a useful reminder of the need to be sensitive about humanity’s impact on its environment. Other Māori values – such as mauri, wairua, kaitiakitanga and utu – offer a powerful way to ensure there is balance, collective custodianship or guardianship and respect for the spirit or force of the natural world. Care must be taken not to lift Māori values unthinkingly out of their context as part of an integrated Māori view of the world. It is also important not to co-opt Māori values strategically for particular purposes. But if done with sensitivity, integrating Māori world views into environmental politics and policy is a promising part of developing solutions to the crises facing us in the field of climate change, water, and resource management (discussed further below). Protecting the environment for Māori, and drawing upon the Māori spiritual relationship with the land, is also a legal requirement under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which New Zealand endorsed in 2010.

“Māori values offer a powerful way to ensure there is balance, collective custodianship or guardianship and respect for the spirit or force of the natural world.”

A more powerful role for the state, discussed at length in Chapters 4 and 6 (and elsewhere), is also necessary, given the specific environmental challenges facing Aotearoa New Zealand. Long-term challenges in regard to water, resource management and climate change cannot be addressed in an ad hoc fashion. What is needed is planning, measuring, regulating and enforcing. While the private sector and the community can also engage in planning (and measuring, regulating and enforcing), the state is best placed to plan for the long term for the community as a whole, and to use its law-making powers and information-gathering tools to monitor and ensure compliance with environmental standards.

Naomi Klein has argued that Germany’s (incomplete) transition to being a low-carbon economy involves a new vision of government, entailing a reassertion of the value of planning, steering and regulating. It’s “a departure from neoliberal orthodoxy [in Germany],” Klein writes. “[T]he government is engaging in long-term national planning: it is deliberately picking winners in the market (renewables over nuclear power, which it is simultaneously closing down); it is fixing prices (a clear market interference); and creating a fair playing field for any potential renewable energy producer – big or small – to enter the market.” The New Zealand Productivity Commission, which comes from a different perspective compared to Klein, has – in what is only, admittedly, a draft report – made similar noises about the significance of some state functions in the future of resource management. “Making progress on environmental priorities will require more robust monitoring and enforcement,” the Commission notes. “Performance by regional councils on this front has been disappointing. Monitoring efforts are often under-resourced…” Diverse commentators are therefore highlighting the need for a relatively muscular state to drive environmental protection.

This state cannot become detached from the people, however, and environmental progress will only be made through a thoroughgoing bottom-up movement that supports and pushes top-down change. Klein again: “[O]nly mass social movements can save us now.” She adds:

“Winning will certainly take the convergence of diverse constituencies on a scale previously unknown. Because, although there is no perfect historical analogy for the challenge of climate change, there are certainly lessons to learn from the transformative movements of the past. One such lesson is that when major shifts in the economic balance of power take place, they are invariably the result of extraordinary levels of social mobilisation.”

Klein is talking about climate change, as opposed to the environment as a whole; she is referring to global action, not just action in one country. But it is nevertheless true that for New Zealand to retain its ‘clean and green’ image – for that phrase to become a powerful statement of what we continue to stand for, and not just a mendacious myth – there will need to be a movement of people from diverse constituencies. There will need to be genuine, informed people power, which I return to in the next chapter.

These, then, are the guiderails for environmental politics and policy. We need a values-based politics, which integrates Māori world views and is accompanied by decolonisation. We need a strong role for the state, disciplined and driven by people power. What specifically can be done to realise this?

Max is an author and academic from Aotearoa New Zealand, currently completing a PhD in Law at All Souls College in Oxford, UK. Purchase his book The New Zealand Project via Bridget Williams Books.