Half a century ago, the Manapouri Power Project blew up into one of our nation's biggest environmental rows. In her new book, environmental historian Catherine Knight has tracked the history of green governance in New Zealand since, and why we've failed to address some of our enduring woes. She talked to Jamie Morton about the state of play today.

Can you give us an overview of the book, and what inspired you to write it?

Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand

traces the evolution of environmental administration in New Zealand since the dawn of the "environmental era" in the late 1960s.

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Since this national campaign to stop the government from raising the water level in Lake Manapouri for a hydro scheme, to provide cheap electricity to the Colmalco aluminium smelter, we have seen immense progress in environmental governance in New Zealand.

We have institutions and legislation dedicated to managing our environment, and the public's ability to participate in environmental decision-making has been strengthened markedly.

But despite this, we are seeing continued degradation of the environment: our waterways continue to deteriorate, our biodiversity is in decline and our greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.

Beyond Manapouri seeks to explain why the institutions and legislation that were put in place to improve the stewardship of our environment have failed to halt environmental decline.

The book also identifies the cultural shifts that I believe will need to take place if we are to live up to the "clean, green" image we have constructed for ourselves.

I am passionate about environmental history – I sincerely believe that understanding our environmental past helps create a better understanding of where we find ourselves now.

But this book goes beyond my previous books – I was motivated more by a sense of urgency, a sense that, yes, we have come a long way in 50 years – but not quickly enough.

I was interested in the barriers to improving environmental outcomes in these key areas.

I guess the key message in this book is that for a democratic system to work properly, people have to understand what is going on, and if they don't, they need to demand to.

Nothing epitomises this imperative more than the debacle around the freshwater policy announcements in 2017 - 90 per cent swimmable rivers by 2040 - which left the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and some of our country's brightest scientists confused by what was being proposed.

And, alarmingly, a subsequent Official Information Act request revealed that even Ministry for the Environment officials were struggling to understand the proposals.

The Save Manapouri Campaign was one of New Zealand's biggest environmental moments. Ten per cent of our population at the time backed the petition opposing the raising of the lake's water level. Do you think that really signalled the start of the green movement?

I think it would be simplistic to say it signalled the start of the environmental movement in New Zealand.

There were contributing strands to the movement, both before the campaign and after – including influential developments internationally, such as the Stockholm Declaration, in the early 1970s.

However, I do think the Save Manapouri Campaign was really significant.

Not simply because New Zealanders were saying "no" to a government proposal that would detrimentally impact on an environment they valued, but even more fundamentally, because New Zealanders were questioning the government – until that time, the actions of government had gone virtually unquestioned, particularly when it came to public works.

An upsurge in public concern around freshwater problems led to a U-turn in government policy. Photo / File
An upsurge in public concern around freshwater problems led to a U-turn in government policy. Photo / File

The environment played a big part in the last election - particularly the state of our lakes and rivers. Why was this significant?

Yes, it was pointed out by the Environmental Defence Society, which has been around since 1971, that environmental issues were more prominent in the 2017 election than any election since the native forest campaigns of the late 1970s, when there were widespread campaigns opposing logging in state-owned native forests.

In relation to fresh water especially, the two or so years leading up to the 2017 election were a bit of a watershed in my view.

Not in terms of the policies we were seeing from government, but more in terms of the public's awareness of the growing pressure of land-use intensification in particular on our fresh water.

And without doubt, the Havelock North water crisis contributed to that awakening.

Over the past decade, do you think we've generally gone forward or backwards when it comes to environmental politics?

Undoubtedly we have gone forward, but it has been one step forward, two steps backwards at times.

The so-called and mis-named "fart tax" was an example of the government trying to do something tangible in terms of carbon emissions but it completely backfiring.

As I discuss in the book, it is my observation that governments have become too risk averse about policy interventions when it comes to the environment – too worried about upsetting powerful sectors of society such as industry and the agricultural sector.

And this is not helped by an increasingly risk-adverse public sector - the people giving ministers advice.

I worked as an official for nine years, and I can say from my experience that we spent more time worrying about the risk of political embarrassment to the government or minister, rather than risk to the environment.

Free and frank advice, the foundation of democratic system, is not possible where this thinking prevails.

Without free and frank advice, policy is influenced too much by popularity stakes rather than the imperative to address a problem.

There have been some bold moves from the current government: less than a year into its term, we've seen a big funding increase for the Department of Conservation, work to launch a Climate Change Commission and a Zero Carbon Act, and pledges to shake up the Emissions Trading Scheme, the Resource Management Act and the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. Do you think we are now where we need to be in the environment space?

I am heartened by the policy announcements that we are seeing from the current government, and it is most definitely progress in the right direction in my view.

In the case of the Zero Carbon Act/Climate Change Commission, there had been cross-party consensus building on this for some time even before the election, and I think it was only a matter of time before something in some shape or form emerged – the result of the 2017 election expedited that.

In the case of other environmental policies, particularly in the fresh water and resource management space, I think what we are seeing here is a product of specific circumstances that don't happen that often.

"Until now, we have seen recycling as the panacea to our waste problem and therefore not seen a need to modify our behaviour when it comes to consumption." Photo / File

We have a very capable and experienced Minister for the Environment, David Parker, who, because of the time he is in his career, sees this as potentially his last opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.

In other words, he is more concerned about doing things that will meaningfully tackle the urgent environmental problems we face, and less concerned than most ministers would be about any backlash or impact on popularity.

This doesn't happen very often, particularly in the post-MMP world.

And of course, we have to remember too that just as easily as policies and measures can be introduced, they can be undone or attenuated to the point of being ineffectual – this happened in the case of the Emissions Trading Scheme, for example.

The other part of the equation is public awareness - and another reason for not being able to answer "yes" to this question.

In some areas we have seen exponential growth in public awareness and knowledge of environmental issues - for example, fresh water - but in others we seem to have gone backwards.

Our attitude to resource use and waste is a stark example.

The amount of waste New Zealanders generate has increased by around 20 per cent over the last three years – we are now among the most wasteful in the developed world.

Until now, we have seen recycling as the panacea to our waste problem and therefore not seen a need to modify our behaviour when it comes to consumption.

But now China is refusing to take much of our waste material and we are scrambling to find other solutions.

Stockpiles of waste around the country are the result.

This is just one example – I discuss others in Beyond Manapouri.

I think there is a lot of scope for New Zealanders to take more responsibility for the environment as a "public good", as something we share, benefit from, and need to sustain into the future.

And of course with climate change and global issues such as the epidemic of plastics in our oceans, "our environment" is now a lot bigger – it is not just our local or national environment that we need to be thinking about, but the global one.

Looking into the near future, what do you think will be the big issues of contention? Is there anything on the horizon that might prove New Zealand's next Manapouri?

I don't think we are ever going to have any issue like Manapouri again – this was a campaign for an iconic landscape, and it was a very black and white, David and Goliath scenario - the little guy against the state, which had all the resources and all the information back then.

"Undoubtedly we have gone forward, but it has been one step forward, two steps backwards at times," environmental historian Catherine Knight says. Photo / Supplied

Today environmental issues tend to be a lot more complex, and less tangibly identifiable – for example, difficult to put on a postcard.

But I would say that the surge of concern around fresh water, which we saw in the final couple of years of the last government, was potentially as close as we might get.

It got lots of New Zealanders from all walks of life talking about rivers and lakes and being able to swim in them, the idea of this being "their birth right".

And it was this upsurge in concern that led to the U-turn in government policy.

The then-Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, went from insisting that making New Zealand's rivers and lakes swimmable was economically unviable, to coming out with a policy to make all rivers and lakes "swimmable" by 2040.

In terms of issues of contention, I think we are seeing them already.

These are the issues that are characterised by the tension between private gain and public cost; that is, the exploitation, or degradation, of the environment for private profit, while the cost of a despoiled environment and its remediation is assumed by the public, through reduced enjoyment or benefits from the environment, including impacts on health, and through our taxes.

I think the recognition that this distribution of benefits and costs is fundamentally wrong and unfair is starting to dawn on us as New Zealanders.

• Minister for the Environment David Parker will launch Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand (Canterbury University Press) at 5pm on June 14 at Vic Books Pipitea, Wellington.