Daniel Kelly: A call to arms to protect Godzone

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The beauty of nature is not some God-given right - we must teach our children that it needs to be fought for.

Every New Zealander has a responsibility to protect that which we feel so entitled to. Photo / Alan Gibson
Every New Zealander has a responsibility to protect that which we feel so entitled to. Photo / Alan Gibson

What does it mean to be a New Zealander? The question is one I've been forced to confront time and time again while overseas: how to explain life in Godzone to people who have no concept of Down Under, let alone New Zealand?

Many of the things we've called on historically seem outdated in the modern world, and fail to match up with the diverse New Zealand I know. No 8 wire, farming and the hard-working settler mentality struggle to fit with a generation who've never shorn a sheep, let alone used the fencing wire we name-check as shorthand for our initiative.

Irrespective of how you feel about it, the fact is that our population is now predominantly cosmopolitan and knows little of the rural lifestyle that once characterised us as a nation.

Sure, we still have pavlova, days at the beach and Jandals - but what do these tell us about the future? They're symbolic artefacts, not a guideline for building a united nation.

Our country is still young and it would be irresponsible to rest our laurels on the ashes of Gallipoli.

Ours is a nation of shifting racial ratios and each wave of immigrants brings different things to our collective table.

Maori might be the initial immigrants but as rich as the taonga of our first people is, it is unrealistic to expect new arrivals to abandon their own histories in favour of an existing narrative. No, what we need to do is try to find some common ground that will enable us to write a new story - one that we can all own while still preserving our individual histories.

So, what then to stake our claim of unity on?

One of the recurring things we are known for, and indeed that which we have chosen to promote, is our rich abundance of natural beauty.

It doesn't matter whether people are aware of it through the much-maligned 100 per cent Pure campaign or, more likely, through the sweeping homage The Lord of the Rings pays to our topography - the key point is that it is our environment that is our most celebrated asset.

Fortunately it's one John can't sell.

It doesn't matter whether you're skiing in the Southern Alps, sunning yourself in Coromandel, or tramping in the Ureweras - the natural world is one all Kiwis cherish. The importance of our geography is reflected in the national psyche, and we feel a sense of entitlement to it.

But here's the sting in the proverbial tale: we're not entitled. Our natural beauty and badge of pride internationally is not some God-given right. We have done little to create it, and its unspoiled nature is largely a product of our isolation and low population density. Put simply, we haven't had a chance to ruin it. Yet.

This isn't a cause for despair; on the contrary, it's a call to arms.

It is a product of our nature that we hate being told how to live. The best change is effected when a community feels a sense of autonomy and ownership over a decision.

Here then is my challenge to all New Zealanders: take a look at the things you love about New Zealand - what have you done to create them, to protect them?

It isn't too late for larger collective action. We can teach our children about the wonder of native bush and rugged coastlines; teach them that this wonder needs protecting and that throwing your rubbish out the car window doesn't just spoil the vista, it sullies the ecosystem and undermines our future.

Everything is connected and it is our responsibility as New Zealanders to protect that which we feel so entitled to.

It is here that the ancient wisdom of tikanga Maori becomes most relevant. As our original citizens once did, we must adopt the principle of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, and strive to protect what is ours.

This can take any number of forms: from voting with your wallet for products and companies that share this respect to encouraging others to treasure the nuances of our fragile ecosystem; not littering or taking undersize paua; and questioning the government when it looks to exploit our resources for short-term economic gain. It's a subtle shift in focus, from ownership and entitlement to guardianship, but one that we ignore at our peril.

The burden of this shouldn't fall on our children; we can teach ourselves, too, and in doing so, might forge a more cohesive nation. One that defines itself not by race or history, but by ideology: resilient, creative, innovative - and conscious of the interconnectivity of all things.

It isn't too late.

Daniel Kelly is in his final year of a BSc/LLB (Hons) at the University of Auckland. As part of his honours dissertation he is researching the importance of the outdoors to all New Zealanders.

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