Conformism raises head as pure illusion exposed

By David Scoullar

It's sometimes said that the 1950s was a golden age in New Zealand, but a harder look tells us that we were a very conformist society. Those with non-mainstream viewpoints were often stepped on - hard.

Have things really changed? What happens to people who don't go along with the majority view on our clean and green image, climate change and the use of 1080 poison to eradicate pests?

I will save 1080 for another day and focus first on the recent unpleasant experience of Dr Mike Joy, a Massey University freshwater ecologist, who had the temerity to tell two US newspapers that New Zealand's clean and green global image was fast becoming divorced from ecological fact.

Enunciating this inconvenient truth resulted in nasty attacks on his research and character. He was accused of sabotaging the tourist industry and national economy and even labelled a "traitor". None of the attacks addressed his factual, referenced information.

Most amazing was Prime Minister John Key's dismissive response that "100 Per Cent Pure" is just a slogan and has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Joy shakes his head at the alarming level of unawareness of reality and notes that our environmental status speaks for itself, ticking off these facts:

We now have the highest proportion of threatened species in the world.

Threatened species includes 68 per cent of our freshwater fish and our only freshwater crayfish and mussel.

More than 90 per cent of our wetlands have been destroyed.

68 per cent of our ecosystems are threatened.

96 per cent of our lowland waterways are unswimmable.

43 per cent of all lakes are classed as polluted.

The killer blow that shows we are totally failing to live up to our image comes in a recent international peer-reviewed comparison of our environmental performance. Compared to 180 countries, we ranked about 161st on our per-capita performance and around 130th for overall impacts.

Joy is also puzzled that international press coverage seems to be one of the few catalysts for a national debate here about the environment, that politicians only listen when someone outside the country points it out. What did I say about the mindset of the 1950s?

If Joy came under sometimes vicious attack for dissenting, worse has befallen a once-iconic name in conservation who claims he has become a pariah because of what he might call an inconvenient untruth.

Once the UK's best-known botanist, David (remember the "old man's beard must go" campaign?) Bellamy's fame disappeared in 2004 when, in the teeth of public opinion and mounting scientific evidence, he said global warming was nothing but "poppycock".

He was deserted by fans, shunned by peers and, he says, ostracised by broadcasters and conservation groups that once thrived through his endorsement.

But the man who brought botany to life through rambling TV monologues is unrepentant. He was quoted in an interview: "Someone even emailed me [at the time] to say I was the worst paedophile in the world, basically saying I was killing children by denying global warming, but in the last 30 years crops have got greener and grow quicker." He says CO2 acts as a fertiliser "and that is good news that we don't get".

It's a sad twilight for Bellamy, now 80, who has always been ready to get stuck in for the environment.

"I helped start conservation. There were no groups when I was first around," he says. "Now they don't want to be anywhere near me. The WWF has saved a few pandas - but where are they with the forests? What are the groups doing? What we have lost is our common sense."

Maybe Joy feels the same way about what has happened to the common sense in New Zealand.

David Scoullar is a tramper, conservationist and member of the Te Araroa Whanganui Trust

- Wanganui Chronicle

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