Steve Braunias discovers a government report – and a lobby group – which urgently recommended New Zealand prepare for nuclear war in the 1980s. Why did their warnings go unheeded?

We have much to learn from the teachings of ancient civilisations, for instance the remarkable work that went into preparing New Zealand for nuclear war in the 1980s.

In that long-ago, fragile decade, much of the planet trembled with the fear of nuclear annihilation.

We were all gonna die.

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You could cut the Cold War tension with a warhead.

Pershing missiles, the Star Wars defence network in outer space... One good thing about the likely extinction of our species is that it concentrated the mind, and New Zealand responded to the crisis by leading the world with a brilliant and far-sighted government study that examined how our society would cope in the event of a nuclear showdown.

Short version: our society won't cope. New Zealand will collapse like a house of cards.

We're all gonna die.

The 1987 study languishes in the basement room of Auckland's city library. New Zealand After Nuclear War: The Background Papers was commissioned by the Planning Council, a short-lived government quango created by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon and killed by the Labour administration that succeeded him.

Verily, the workings of ancient civilisations.

The background papers – 14 in all, ranging from food needs to health care, fuel supplies to "mass grieving" - are the product of many first-rate minds, and it remains a thrilling, detailed read.

But it's as though it never existed. It's like a Dead Sea scroll, set aside, ignored, its revelations and warnings unheeded.

It made world news – there was a story about it in the New York Times, marvelling at the report's thoroughness.

It called for New Zealand to prepare. What happened?

"Well," said the project leader of the report, Wellington ecologist Dr Wren Green, "not a f****** thing."

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He was moving house when we spoke this week. His mission was to empty enough boxes so he could find the carpet.

At the time of the report, Green was a recognised expert in the field of the likely effects of nuclear damage to New Zealand's environment.

He presented a study at a conference in Sweden. He lobbied the government to encourage a further, wide-ranging report, and tried to engage the support of the Royal Society.

"They were rather reluctant to do anything. Very conservative back then. But I persisted, and the money came through," he said with a merry laugh, "from France."

He meant the compensation that France paid to New Zealand for its bombing of the Rainbow Warrior.

Even government officials could see it was a good fit to use France's blood money to fund a report into the consequences of nuclear war.

And so Green set to work, with researchers Tony Cairns and Judith Wright. Their six-month investigation was predicated on the possibility of a nuclear exchange in the northern hemisphere; New Zealand was not taken seriously as a target.

The damage caused by nuclear winter – the effects of smoke from fires on the atmosphere – was considered minimal, and so was radiation sickness.

The tyranny of distance would be our saviour: the quickest that smoke would take to reach us would be in three-four weeks, by then less thick and toxic.

Daylight might be temporarily reduced by 20 per cent, and the temperature could fall by about three degrees for up to a year. Certainly this would affect crops and dairying, and the report drilled down to table the likely damage to the production of peas, beans, tomatoes and strawberries, but "the impact would be slight or undetectable".

The greatest threat would be an expected total loss of trade. We would be adrift, isolated, vulnerable.

"New Zealand's dependence on imports of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals is virtually 100 per cent," the report stated.

Morphine would last two months. Dental services would run out of equipment in six months. There would be a return of tetanus, measles, polio and TB, and an increase in child deaths.

Pregnancy rates would rise with the loss of imported contraceptives – the report mused that coitus interruptus would only go so far, and that "sea sponges and condoms made from lamb caecum would have to suffice".

This understatement: "Abortion would be a dangerous option without equipment and drugs."

Fuel would run out. "Panic buying would lead to local supplies being quickly exhausted."

Pigs, deer and rabbits would over-run the countryside.

Parasitism in New Zealand livestock "would be a severe problem".

The people would turn to drink, but "the wine industry would collapse....Imported cork would be unavailable".

Sober, stuck at home, sick: "A psychologically bartered nation...There would be considerable anxiety, fear, grief and depression, and probably considerable anger... Thousands would suffer extreme emotional stress."

The body would weaken; the body politic would fall apart.

"The likeliest outcome of nuclear war would be feudalism, sustained by physical force rather than consent ... Life will be nasty, brutish and short."

But what about government, and its power to assume command and maintain order?

Green talked about workshops that were part of his study. "Very revealing," he said.

Volunteers were called to role-play in two groups. One was government, with cabinet ministers and a Prime Minister; they were sent to a room, and tasked to work out what to do in a nuclear crisis. The other group took on roles of a solo mum, a dairy owner, unemployed riff-raff, and other members of society.

Green: "We did this three times and it was the same result every time. The two responses were diametrically opposed to one another. The government was going to in call in the army and put a clamp on sales of petrol and oil, and put the country into lockdown.

"Meanwhile the people in communities were much more focused on getting back to family, which involved travel, cars, and petrol. For the government, that would look like chaos. It would mean people all over the place doing stuff and that would conflict with the government trying to do to shut everyone down.

"I remember vividly one guy at the workshop. He was president of the New Zealand Veterinary Association. He turned up in a three-piece suit and tie, and his response when he heard what the government was going to do, was to shout, 'How dare you! How dare you tell me what I am meant to be doing in a crisis like this!' And he was deadly serious."

Doomsday was so 1980s. At the time Green was conducting his study in Wellington, a possibly quaint, definitely serious lobby group was meeting in Auckland, intent on preparing New Zealand for nuclear winter.

One of the founding members was Graeme Easte, who later entered local politics.

Graeme Easte was a founder member of a serious lobby group intent on preparing for nuclear winter. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Graeme Easte was a founder member of a serious lobby group intent on preparing for nuclear winter. Photo / Brett Phibbs

He called me one evening and revealed the existence of a group of Aucklanders who met once a month for a shared dinner, and went by the name of DUSC – the Down Under Survival Committee.

He said: "I have a box of papers somewhere." I urged him to find it, and visited his house in Mt Albert a few days later.

There was an attractive water fountain out front. Inside, on the dining table, was the box of papers, untouched by human hand for nearly 30 years.

A fair bit of this excavated treasure was comedy gold, particularly the early minutes which recorded the angstings over coming up with the right name.

The group started meeting in 1985. September 25: "No name was finally decided upon, but Mr Ellkind put forward Campaign for the Aftermath and Project Noah. The latter proved the more popular, although it was thought by some members that it sounded a little too catastrophic."

Minutes, the following month: "DUSK - Down Under Survival Kommittee- tickled everyone's fancy, but Jerry did not like the Communistic 'K'."

Minutes, November: "The name was discussed again. Ian liked Down Under Survival Committee, but felt the word 'committee' was too elitist."

Those in favour voted DUSC.

Regular members included a psychiatrist from the mental hospital on Carrington Rd, and an American couple, Billy and Becky Greene: "They were refugees," said Graeme Easte.

He meant they fled Reagan's America for a safe haven in the South Pacific. The membership had no shortage of ideas. Minutes: "Mr Ellkind shared his idea that New Zealand should hold the centre for the containment of the world's knowledge…The difficulty of the financing for this was discussed."

So some nonsense, and the occasional woolly idealistic dreaming, but the essential aims of DUSC were well thought-out. In fact, they were visionary. I sat with Graeme Easte at his dining table with the sun pouring in through the window, and he said, "A lot of people in the survival movement focus entirely on the individual. They think, 'It's going to be nasty out there, we need guns, we need to get away from people so we must have a hide-out somewhere in the woods.'" He had just accurately described the thinking of many of New Zealand's new breed of preppers – people preparing for some kind of chaos. Their philosophy is predicated on man alone, isolated groups, a lawless state. Graeme continued, "Being realistic, there probably is going to be a bit of a breakdown in society. And this was our concern. It wasn't the survival of individuals but the survival of some kind of society. Because we are not doomed to die. Most New Zealanders are probably doomed to survive a nuclear war."

DUSC, rightly, didn't see New Zealand as a target. The hot subject of the day was nuclear winter – radiation fall-out - but the group disregarded that as a major threat. Exactly like Wren Green's report for the Planning CounciL, DUSC was concerned with New Zealand being cut off from world trade, and having to cope as an island state, sans fuel and medical supplies. Its objectives were listed in a founding documents "Nationally co-ordinated measures for the maintenance of a humane and secure society; preservation of breeding stocks for life forms threatened with extinction; a seed bank; contingency preparations with other countries likely to survive a nuclear war, especially Australia."

Annual membership cost $10. They met in Waiwera, Grey Lynn, Mt Eden. Fliers were printed: "DUSC is a pressure group formed by individuals concerned at the lack of planning for the aftermath of a nuclear conflict."

Easte said in his sunny home, "Another big risk we identified was that we could wind up acting as a kind of bolthole for refugees from the Northern Hemisphere, who might well turn up here armed to the teeth. Rather than asking nicely, 'May we join you,' they might wind up disrupting, shall we say, the way things were here, by demanding things. If someone turns up in one of our harbours in a warship or a submarine or something..." He spread his palms. The gesture meant: we could do nothing to stop them. "Yeah," he said.

DUSC made things happen. It lobbied the Planning Council to commission a report, although when I told Wren Green about the group, he said, "Who?" He didn't even know they were behind a major two-day conference at which he was one of the guest speakers. It was held in 1988 at Arahina, a two-storey Tudor pile which served as the NZ Girl Guides' national training centre in Marton. "A grand old country house with a ballroom," said Easte, who had opened the box on the dining room table, and began taking out papers.

"Aha! Here's the programme," he said. " Here's a list of the attendees. What do we get... Chairman of the Taranaki District Council. A disaster management consultant from Marton – he wasn't far from home! He probably wanted his money back because when you go to a conference, it's the thrill of staying somewhere interesting.... A psychiatrist. Oh, he's one of ours. A retired person. Civil Defence person. A farmer. A vet..."

I said, "It all seems very male."

"No, no. There were a few women there. Not a lot."

Men and a few women attended from Dunedin, Christchurch, Timaru, Avondale, Whangarei, Invercargill, Greymouth, Wellington, Taranaki. Breakfast was at 0745 hours, dinner at 1815. The post-nuclear future of New Zealand was at stake; those in attendance were passionate about the need to defend civilised life; there were lively speeches, a feeling that things were on the move. But it was a false dawn for DUSC. The conference was its last hurrah.

"Enlarging the group membership was always a topic of conversation," said Grahame Easte. "We sent out membership forms to people at the conference, but..." He closed the lid of the box. "You'll want to speak to Evan Audley from DUSC about what happened," he said. He gave me his number.

Wren Green, too, recommended I talk to someone. It was when he told me why he thought the Planning Council's report had died a death. It had arrived with a hiss and a roar – there was intensive media, including a marathon six-hour talkback appearance on Radio Pacific, and Wren was sent on a speaking tour in public halls from Whangarei to Dunedin – but then quietly killed off.

I asked, "What was the report's legacy?"

"It was a very useful exercise in showing up system vulnerabilities which could have been the basis for some more substantive planning and thinking about the resilience of our systems, not only stockpiling but infrastructure," he said. "But we lack the capacity to plan long-term. New Zealand is, I think, woefully inadequate at setting long-term strategic goals."

I said, "Back then, New Zealand's preparedness for nuclear conflict was roughly zero. I'd hazard a similar figure today."

He said, "Me, I'd say it was even less prepared...I think we would probably be worse off."

He thought that the same major threat – New Zealand cut adrift, helpless to look after itself – hadn't changed. He outlined a scenario that was similar to something Graeme Easte had imagined: "Superpowers who would have their own contingency plans to take over New Zealand as a bolthole. I guess that's feasible. We don't have much in the way of defences. So that would work. It might be a nice place for them to set up shop. Away from any fallout for a while. That's one scenario if you really want to get doomsdayish."

I was more intrigued why was there no follow-up to his report. He said, "Yes, well, what happened was that I proposed a stage two study that would have focused a lot more about the lack of preparedness, and our adaptation response. But it got sabotaged and torpedoed by various conservative elements in government who didn't want to take it any further. Bureaucrats have a way of getting rid of things they don't want to happen."

Planning Council chief executive Peter Rankin, he offered, might remember. "He's still around." I called Rankin at his home in Wellington. He was a very debonair 75-year-old with a slow, deep laugh.

I asked him about Wren Green's idea for a second study, and he said, "That never got any traction at all. It had cost us an enormous amount of resources internally to manage the first study. An enormous amount of attention was diverted from the other things we were trying to do. So we decided the Planning Council wouldn't follow it up, and trying to get anyone else to do it was very difficult."

I shouted, "So it was you! You're the one to blame!"

The slow, deep laugh sounded down the phone. "Well, you could say that."
I roared, "The bureaucrat who had too much on his plate to help save New Zealand from ruin in the event of a nuclear exchange!"

"Well, yeah. But look. That study was quite extraordinary in saying, 'Hey we're not going to get nuked, we're probably not even going to have radiation, but we won't survive.' So the main lesson out of that report is that the only good solution is prevention.

"There isn't a survival strategy that makes any sense, other than working with the rest of the global system. We can't survive on our own economically unless people are prepared to give up medicines and cars."

I said, "What, you really don't see the wisdom in taking steps towards preparing society?"

"Not really," he said. He had a lovely voice; blitheness never sounded so cultured. "How much medicine are you going to stockpile? For how long? When's the recovery going to come? We can't maintain the sort of society we have now under this threat, and its pretty unimaginable what sort of society we would have."

But that was the entire purpose of DUSC: that New Zealand could maintain a functioning civilisation. I visited founding member Evan Audley at his home in Epsom. There was a very large rabbit in his front garden. It was as fat as a Buddha. Evan, too, had a pacific nature, a still and gentle demeanour. It was a pleasure to talk with him about those old hopes of fashioning a civilised response to nuclear war.

He said, "Survival strategies sometimes have a selfish component. 'Let's have weapons and stockpile food.' That goes against the grain. The main threat to the individual after nuclear war is the collapse of society around you....We have the makings of a place that could survive."

I wanted to cheer. We shared the same belief in the decency of the civil society. He saw all of New Zealand in the same boat; it wasn't a matter of who was the strongest in the boat. DUSC worked towards that goal. But he confirmed what Graeme Easte said: it collapsed after the 1988 conference in Marton. "I sent out a newsletter and membership forms to everyone who attended," he said. "I didn't get a single response. It looked like we were shouting an important message into the wind."

I asked, "What was the group's legacy?"

He said, "Some of it endures in people's heads."

And then he started talking about aliens. In recent years, he said, he'd become convinced of other, superior civilisations. "That's our biggest threat," he said. "That would be certain extinction. We'd very likely survive nuclear war. But an invasion – no."

It was time to go. I'd arranged for a taxi, and went outside to wait for it. Evan stood with me on the pavement. As the cab arrived, I said, "By the way – are you related to a former school principal, called Doug Audley?"
The name gave him a jolt. It was as though I gave him a sudden push. "He was my dad," he said.

I explained that he was my principal at Mt Maunganui College, and that we were neighbours. I used to visit. He'd pour me a glass of milk, and we'd talk. He intelligent, gentle, encouraging. He told me how to apply for journalism school in Wellington; our family couldn't afford the train fare, so he paid for it.

Doug died early. And now, some 40 years later, I was talking to his son. He'd made it possible. His generosity gave me a career. He was a civilising influence.