Russel Norman is absolutely right to say that scientists must be free to perform their academic duty to report environmental degradation. But in talking about concerns raised by Massey University scientist Mike Joy, the Green Party co-leader should also have noted that any comments from academia should be fair and accurate. If not, they can expect to be the subject of well-warranted criticism. Such is the case with Dr Joy's comments about New Zealand's environmental record.
His remarks are included in a recent New York Times article that suggested this country's clean green image, represented by snow-capped mountains, clean rivers and pristine countryside, was false and misleading. Dr Joy told the newspaper that although this country promoted itself as "100 per cent Pure New Zealand", the reality came nowhere close to matching this. "We don't deserve 100 per cent Pure, we are nowhere near the best in the world, we are not even in the top half of countries in the world when it comes to clean and green," he said.
Dr Joy has half a point. Some overseas tourists are doubtless nonplussed to be greeted by signs stating a river is unsafe for swimming.
This is a much different experience to that suggested by the latest Tourism New Zealand campaign, which portrays this country as the real Middle-earth by using scenic imagery of green fields and people catching fish accompanied with a voice-over talking about "a place that will forever keep you under its spell". But the reality of New Zealand is also a long way from the bottom half of the countries of the world in terms of pristine environments. Whatever its deficiencies, it is nonsensical to place this country in the company of the world's more polluted nations.
Dr Joy may suggest he is exaggerating for effect, so as to galvanise action to safeguard what he believes will soon be this country's only marketing edge. But such overstatement is the stuff of advertising, not academic observation. Unfortunately, Dr Joy is also making something of a habit of this practice. In an Opinion article in the Herald in April last year, he exclaimed that "far from being 100 per cent pure, natural, clean, or even green, the real truth is we are an environmental/biodiversity catastrophe". This implies a situation where there is great damage or suffering. On no account could that be considered close to reality.
This practice might not matter much if it was not for the fact that it can be picked up by the international media. The "catastrophe" article was used a couple of months after its publication by BBC journalist Stephen Sackur when he interviewed John Key on the television programme Hardtalk.
Its over-the-top nature clearly encouraged Sackur to see this country as something of an environmental disaster, even after the Prime Minister made the very reasonable comment that compared with the rest of the world, New Zealand was 100 per cent Pure.
Dr Joy's comments to the New York Times about this country's environmental record also come at an unfortunate time. Sir Peter Jackson's movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premieres around the world this week. The latest Tourism NZ campaign has been timed to take advantage of the publicity associated with it. Dr Joy's contradictory remarks could deter some big-spending American tourists from coming here.
Academics have a right and responsibility to comment publicly on issues of importance to the community without fear or favour. Their expert knowledge makes them an important part of any public discussion. But their comments must be appropriate. Dr Joy's exaggerations fail that test. If he wants his criticism to be treated seriously, it will have to be expressed in a more judicious manner.
Editor's note - correction:
This editorial criticised the 'timing' of comments made by Massey University scientist Mike Joy to the New York Times ahead of The Hobbit launch and a new Tourism NZ campaign on 100% Pure. Dr Joy points out that he made the comments one month before they appeared in print. Another statement by Dr joy that New Zealand would not be 'in the top half of countries in the world when it comes to clean and green' was made to the Herald in a follow-up, not the Times itself as stated in the editorial.