Sir Rob Fenwick's passing in early March was a great loss for New Zealand and work to develop a sustainable economy. He lived his life as an advocate for how a successful business could tread lightly on the Earth. Rob lost his "dance with cancer" as he called it but his life has been a masterclass in moving with nature.
I was reminded of the massive contribution to sustainability that Rob had made during his life when I recently attended a virtual meeting of the Aotearoa Circle, which was aptly named the "Fenwick forum", with 75 other CEOs from across Government and business.
The Aotearoa Circle was a brainchild of Sir Rob . It's a partnership of public and private sector leaders committed to the pursuit of sustainable prosperity and reversing the decline of New Zealand's natural resources. As part of the Covid-19 economic recovery plan, the Aotearoa Circle has been working on a principle of sustainable wealth creation, not just jobs for jobs' sake.
Sir Rob co-founded the organic composting service Living Earth Ltd and was involved in many sustainability and conservation initiatives. He saw our heritage as our wildlife - "the land of birds" - and suggested New Zealand's aim should be "Predator-free New Zealand – every rat, every possum, every stoat gone". He was totally inspired. With Gareth Morgan, he established the Predator Free Trust to start building communities of support and brought big commercial partners on board to help address New Zealand's biodiversity crisis. He lobbied and inspired politicians and business leaders.
Rob was on the WWF Board, established and chaired "Kiwis for kiwi" to bring back our national icon "from endangered to everywhere", and was chairman of Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
I was lucky to be the chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand when Sir Rob was chairman of the board. He was nothing short of inspirational, always enthusiastic, and massively influential. He embraced Māori tikanga and he believed our unique relationship with Māori is creating an indigenously inspired Western democracy.
The Covid-19 experience has brought some of Rob's ideals of sustainability into sharp focus as the world as we knew it, has come crashing down around us. It has taken a microscopic virus to bring us to our knees and when we rise again, we need to ensure that we work with nature, as Rob might have done. We must take his lead and respond to far-reaching changes in our climate and the natural environment. Our response to these critical issues will determine how the future judges us.
Rob predicted in his last article in the NZ Listener that in 100-200 years, our biological economy would be bankrupt — a horrific legacy to bequeath to future generations. He also went on to say that the secret to preserving New Zealand's natural capital is trees.
The Fenwick Forum earlier this month was a pivotal moment in the way that government and business perceived the future. Rob was there in spirit. His daughter Izzy Fenwick has picked up where Rob left off and, in her speech, she challenged us to think collaboratively and find a way forward that was for the greater good.
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If ever there was a time for looking hard at how we conduct ourselves on this Earth, and particularly here in Aotearoa New Zealand, that time is now. There was a strong desire to put nature at the heart of future investments and collaborate for a recovery that sustains people and the environment. This could be our future as Rob might have envisioned it. Idealism mixed with pragmatism.
In a post-Covid-19 economy, that willingness to invest in nature is significant. Many ideas of a sustainable way forward were proposed at the Fenwick forum, and the outcomes will be promoted to Government in due course. Given the recent radical shifts in our economy and environmental challenges, doing the same as we used to is not a viable option.
I think Rob would have approved of some of the work already underway. His ideals are embedded in the Covid-19 recovery. Government has invested $1.3 billion for environmental projects. Partnership with iwi, regional councils, local businesses and conservation groups will provide "Jobs for Nature" and offer meaningful work as our economic recovery leans on the value of nature.
There are trees to be planted, weeds to be pulled, waterways to clean, pests to control and species and habitats to save in the successful delivery of nature-based work programmes, employing those displaced from impacted industries.
Rob leaves behind a legacy of engaged New Zealanders, from small community groups saving kiwi in the back blocks, to corporate moguls in the offices of Auckland City with a vision that the future of our country is grounded in every business contributing to our nature.
• Lou Sanson is Director-General of Conservation.