There's a certain double-standard – or perhaps institutional blindness is a better way of putting it – to our relationship with nature in general and the land in particular that is highlighted whenever a significant natural event occurs.

And what this blindness points up is that for all the statutes and plans we humans manufacture, when nature decides to bite us, there's precious little we can do.

Except react; and, in reacting, tend to make fools of ourselves in thinking we can reasonably mitigate or avoid future such occurrences.

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Take the collapse of part of the seaward cliffs of Cape Kidnappers last week, during which two tourists were injured (and lucky not to be killed).

Despite two very similar events in recent memory, trips to the gannet colony at the Cape had continued and the attraction is heavily promoted as one of Hawke's Bay's primary visitor activities.

That's as it should be, because although a moment's common sense analysis tells you a cliff at the sea's edge is inherently unstable and could slip at any time, surely it's an "acceptable" risk.

Certainly there are plenty of cliffs, and not just on our coast, where people run the same risk every day.

Yet while it's logical to temporarily close the route and assess the stability of the rock-face, the startled reaction by officials has left the impression that stretch of coast may become off-limits indefinitely.

Which wouldn't surprise me, because the "risk averse" attitude that underlies our law-making these days suggests if a risk can't be thoroughly minimised it simply won't (officially) be allowed.

Another example: a chap I know was at the very centre – at Waiau – of the recent Kaikoura earthquake. He tells a fascinating tale of watching as the Oregon boards of the old building he lived in rippled back and forth, and all the nails in turn popped right out of the boards … and then popped back in again.

Everything inside was reduced to scrap, but the building itself was (leaving its rapid de and reconstruction aside) almost completely undamaged. Yet when building inspectors turned up, they took one look at the trashed furniture and fittings and red-stickered the dwelling.


Why? Because they thought it had to be an unacceptable risk. It later proved to be perfectly sturdy.

On the flipside, people take the risk of buying coastal property under imminent threat from sea-level rise, then cling on against the elements in the assuredly-vain hope the community at large will take pity and attempt to save them.

But the already-impacted beachside houses at Haumoana and the soon-to-be threatened ones at Westshore will, eventually, be lost to the waves. Any engineering "solution" would merely delay this.

It's a country-wide problem; already at the small coastal hamlet of Hakatere Beach, near Ashburton, where I've been for the past week, the front row of six baches have been removed because the gravel cliff above the beach has eroded under them.

The point is that while our laws increasingly try to define what we can and can't do based on risk and legal liability, man's law is at best incidental in the face of nature.

And just as common sense tells you to be careful walking along under a cliff, it also tells you that building a house on the beach when the sea is rising is foolhardy.

Doing either is taking, and inherently accepting, a risk - one we should be free to take if we choose.

But since nature will always win, we shouldn't automatically expect rescue if our choice proves our undoing.