A Critical Stage
Remarks on Time
“This forest is textured with different kinds of time, as the surface of the pool is dimpled with different kinds of rain. Fir needles fall with the high-frequency hiss of rain, branches fall with the bloink of big drops, and trees fall with a rare but thunderous thud. Rare, unless you measure time like a river. And we think of it as simply time, as if it were one thing, as if we understood it. Maybe there is no such thing as time; there are only moments, each with its own story.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, excerpt on the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.174 Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 300.
Western science theorizes that the ‘beginning’ of life as we know it started with the Big Bang. A giant explosion, followed by the formation of the universe, billions of years of space churning about in a dangerous fury, the anchoring of our galaxy and construction of our solar system, the geologic rollercoaster of our planets heating and cooling and erupting and settling. Finally, the painstakingly incremental evolution of life on earth began, from teeny tiny organisms to just tiny organisms, and so on. An incredible timeline played out before the first speck of life even existed, let alone developed into the fully operational plants that would provide our oxygen and sustain our life force. Once humans finally existed, we endeavored to tell the story of it all. As I suggested in chapter I, every religion, faith and school under the sun professes its own version of our existence. While they differ in semantics, one thing they all deal with is time. It takes a hell of a lot of time to get from the beginning to now. And now is moving forward and losing meaning with every tick of the clock.
In New Zealand, the concept of time infiltrated nearly everything I experienced. I spent only three months in the country, from October 1st, 2019–January 1st, 2020. Apropos to this subject, I lived New Year’s Day of 2020 twice. What a year to double-down on. For the people I met who considered theirs the latest lifetime of many generations, my visit was a spec on the proverbial calendar. Even so, I lived on the land, swam in the water, and breathed the air of Northland for however many moments of time that make up three months. During that time, through each experience, I learned.
There are at least two competing perceptions of time in New Zealand. The minute Europeans arrived on the shores of Aotearoa, time diverged to create parallel histories for the Pacific island pair. The moment that Polynesian mythology met with the Western paradigm, a line was drawn between Māori and people of the Crown. Their supreme being Io Matua Kore was no longer a singular, original, ultimate power because the Europeans brought with them an entirely separate and well-established belief system, one that touted its own primordial figure – the Christian God. From then onward, Māori mythology became one concept of many and was linked to the Māori people in a manner that signaled it was not the dominant one in the eyes of the lighter-skinned newcomers.
The geographic isolation of Aotearoa may have contributed to how historyunfolded. Isolation and the persistence of each body of peoples. The British had been ‘discovering’ and colonizing ‘new’ territories for centuries before stepping foot on the slice of Earth to be named New Zealand. They knew how to play the game. They capitalized on the barrier in language, swerved around direct confrontation when they could and swiftly injected Western systems of economy and trade into the landscape from the outset. Only once their presence was established did they wield their diplomatic promise of protection and foreign concept of sovereignty and formally lay claim to the land through their mother-nation’s measures of governance. It didn’t matter to them that most Rangatira didn’t sign their documents because they had already received – or in Hugh’s apt wording, manufactured – the seal of approval they needed to take root and begin the systematic theft of what they considered the ultimate resource: the land.
It occurred in quick succession. Europeans established their presence through trade of timber when diplomacy was just speculation, and by the time they had lawful means, they set up a colonial government. The land of Aotearoa became New Zealand, a nation under British Sovereignty, and life reflected it. Indigenous language suppression, the stripping of cultural authority, assimilation to whiteness and the usurping of land rights from Māori occupants and kaitiaki were all embedded in the laws and policies written by a government designed to block Māori from participating in its decision-making and growth.
As the guarantees from the Treaty of Waitangi were ignored, the early disputes led to wars, and the wars led to no retribution, Māori had to grapple with the new future of their vistas. While they were fueled by a deep living connection and chiefly authority to protect their land, once the colonial economy of kauri products developed, they had little choice but to participate. They adapted to the new systems as needed and worked to maintain their own way of life. Simultaneously, they held tight their chiefly authority and fought to rectify the wrongs that occurred in the wake of the Treaty signing, over and over again. Working within the system they protested, they negotiated for representation, laid claim to their stolen land and objected to the destruction of their waterways and forests. All the while, successive generations have prevailed in keeping their cultural institutions in place, forming new coalitions to represent and defend their tribal authority in the region and reinvigorating severed connections.
The scale for progress runs on centimeters rather than hectares. By the time I entered Northland, most people I met had been working to free themselves from the constraints of the Crown for an entire lifetime. Hori Parata, for one, had been cultivating and sharing his indigenous knowledge about whales for over 50 years, all while conducting scholarly research about other indigenous cultures around the world and the cycles of generational trauma and constraint that have befallen communities colonized under the Western paradigm.
After decades of fighting, his frustrations have been polished and his criticisms made poignant. Even after 30 years of the Conservation Act, and 29 years of the Resource Management Act, “We have not been successful in putting kaitiakitanga on the realm,” Hori lamented, on the afternoon we met in Onerahi. His voice thick with passion, he spoke of the uphill battles Māori face. “The clawing back of those things that were stolen from us, and a lot of it is the intangible realm. It is in the intangible realm that those things are returning back to our own stories…For Māori it is whanaungatanga, it’s belonging, it’s connection,” Hori explained. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s an insect, a bug, a bird, it’s your relation and an old relation at that.”
Getting those ideas to resonate with people is one challenge, but pushing them through the annals of government so they may reach the root of the problem and affect change is another matter entirely. It is not impossible, as was proven when the Whanganui River claim and the Wai 262 claim ascended the bureaucratic mountain, but it is laborious. And while it may be overdue, the Crown’s whole-of-government approach to mend colonial era divisions and rectify the historic grievances of Māori over land ownership and contemporary grievances of Māori over intellectual and cultural property is significant in what it signals about the shifting ideological landscape of New Zealand.
What was stolen in a decade has taken nearly four generations to reclaim, and there are still unsettled disputes. Fortunately, Māori understand that time moves free from the individual. Their culture is grounded in the existence of both a physical and intangible natural world and operates on a time-scale that spans many hundreds of years as demonstrated by how kaitiaki seek to manage the forests for 500-1000 years while including the Wairua (spiritual health) of the tree into the management and economics they employ along the way.
Kevin Prime has absorbed the task of multi-generational land management many-fold through his endeavors in Mōtatau of implementing the Kaitiakitanga o te Kuku Restoration Programme and transitioning nearly 700 hectares of pine to native tea tree shrubland, together with his dealings as an Environment Commissioner of the Environment Court, assisting to repeal and rewrite the Resource Management Act. He is a man of action who cares deeply about the land and because of that, he is not one to get bogged down in the minutiae of planning for change when he sees a viable path for enacting it.
So came my inquiry of what comes next? “Our job as kaitiaki is to look after the land and resources for future generations the same as previous generations did. So, in my ideal world…I want to see every other person in the country doing the same as we are…I’d like all the landowners to see their land, trees, mountains and waters as their tūpuna and look after them,” he answered resolutely.
Familiar New Threat
The 21st century is a critical stage in New Zealand’s history, one to rival the signing of the Treaty, the New Zealand Wars and securing independence from Britain. I expect the country’s future will be shaped by the efforts of the Māori and Pākehā I introduced in this text.
The microscopic, soil-borne pathogen Phytophthora agathidicida that threatens the health of Northland’s kauri is a menace that reflects the peculiarities of modern times. Unlike the hasty extraction of kauri timber and bleeding of trees for their amber innards of the 19th & 20th centuries, this new threat does not originate in human greed to advance industry, though, it does affect the tourism industry and was likely introduced by human action. Rather, it originates from a source that humans have yet to dominate. It comes from nature.
Illustrative of the indescribable forces of nature, this disease arrived at a time when kauri had reclaimed a position of prominence in the landscape. It waited until the timber industry moved on to pine trees and until gum digging was a relic behind glass collection cases. It waited until the preservationists and environmentalists had secured swaths of land as Kauri Forest Reserves, initiated tree planting programs, and Māori harvest rights had been given credence, allowing people to carve waka out of kauri wood again and recover whale bodies in customary practice. Perhaps it even waited until the concept of connectivity conservation entered the lexicon of groups like Reconnecting Northland and The Kauri Project and for the early signs of Western practitioners engaging with mātauranga Māori practitioners.
There is progress in governance through legislation, in public opinion through education and in science through research and above all, there is the continued task of Māori to reinvigorate and nourish their living connection to the ngahere. In order for the wellbeing of an entire system like the Northland environment to thrive, all those zones must converge. The connectivity-based community engagement of groups like Reconnecting Northland and The Kauri Project together with co-management of public lands between iwi and DOC, are trials for how New Zealand may operate in the future. A network of relationships all working toward sustaining a living system for generations to come.
In Northland, Hugh and I witnessed rigorous implementation of biosecurity controls for Kauri Dieback and comprehensive annals of community engagement. Just as the country found its bearings on the threat, directing infrastructure, education and Crown-iwi cooperation to wrangle the menacing pathogen, the macrocosm released a new challenge. This time at a greater scale and on an accelerated timeline. The coronavirus was a quiet blip in the national news during the last few weeks I spent in Northland, in December 2019. In the year since, as the world surpasses 100 million known virus cases, the coronavirus pandemic has turned the lives of many into a state of uncertainty. Whether locked in our homes or bravely entering the workplace as an essential worker, humans everywhere learned how to keep going amidst the uprooted chaos of a rapidly spreading public-health-crisis-turned-pandemic.
The parallels between the two illnesses are striking – as is the disparity in international attention. P. agathidicida causes Kauri Dieback Disease. The novel coronavirus causes a disease named COVID-19. Kauri Dieback Disease transmits easily from one surface to the next, is highly infectious and fatal to kauri trees, while COVID-19 transmits easily in the air through infectious viral loads and has a distressingly lofty death toll among positive cases. There is no cure for either KDB or COVID-19, though research for their respective treatments continues. Further, both diseases are born from nature and humans, though not the direct cause of either disease, are primarily responsible for their spread. Thus, adapting human behavior is the best tool in our arsenal to contain either menace. Now, more than ever, the global linkages between humans and their environment from one side of the world to the other are surfacing in unprecedented ways, as are the disparities in how they respond.
The Golden Rule
After leaving Northland on January 1st, 2020, I returned to New York. It is in New York that I have waited out the coronavirus pandemic and thus witnessed my country’s response. In March of 2020, when New York had just become the epicenter of the pandemic in the USA with a recorded 25,000 COVID-19 cases, the government had still neglected to enact a comprehensive federal response, delegating the task to governors who called for stay-at-home orders and re-opening protocols on a state-by-state basis. Explanation and communication from The White House to the American public was disjointed, unabashedly xenophobic, and grew increasingly riddled with falsehoods which ignored the advice of public health experts, epidemiologists and frankly, common sense.
During the spring of 2020, the first ‘peak’ in cases, daily coverage from news outlets proved to be far more accurate than the information disseminated by our country’s highest office. In those critical weeks, the New York Times responded to the woes of the public by compiling a ‘guide to grocery shopping during the coronavirus crisis.’ Among the 18 tips that staff writer Tara Parker-Pope examined was whether to use reusable versus plastic shopping bags, and if the risk of infection from either outweighed the long-term environmental benefit of reducing waste. After the article was published on March 26, 2020, a number of studies were released that estimated the lifespan of the virus on common surfaces – which developed to report the more pressing data of aerosols from breath and speech that the virus lingers in before dissipating in the air – but at the time, the advice from Dr. Daniel Winetsky, an infectious disease fellow at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, NY, was simple: The risk of infection from reusable bags is low, but more, we should use them to reduce our carbon footprint and lower our impact on the environment because our impact, for instance our facilitation of deforestation, “can play a role in the emergence of pandemic viruses, by bringing humans into closer contact with mammal species from which we were previously very isolated.”175 Tara Parker-Pope, “Who Knew Grocery Shopping Could Be So Stressful?”
Dr. Winetsky’s comment scratches the surface of a deeply rooted link between our actions in the environment and the future wellbeing of humans, wildlife and natural resources. Long before the virus took hold in 2020 our collective human interaction with the environment has polluted oceans and air quality, removed forests and altered natural habitats, and contributed to our rapidly warming climate. Thus, it’s no coincidence that diseases preceding COVID-19 such as SARS, MERS, Avian Flu and HIV were introduced to humans because of contact between people and animals, following our encroachment on native habitats. The name for this category of disease is “zoonotic”, which describes diseases caused by germs that spread from animals to people. We even see what Dr. Winetsky spoke of in the spread of Malaria. The mosquitos that carry Malaria have spread into new regions as the warming climate expands their habitat.
All this is to say that global resource extraction and energy consumption has historically encroached on, disrupted and destroyed the habitats of many indigenous flora and fauna that are now also facing pressures from rising global temperatures. Meanwhile, those very consumptive activities accelerate the temperature rise by releasing planet-warming greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. The latter, CO2, can be mitigated with the help of carbon reservoirs naturally provided by the living kauri giants in Northland at risk from dieback, as well as the redwoods and sequoias in the western United States and rainforests in Brazil that are being deforested at the hands of both industrial development and climate-accelerated, human sparked wildfires. Wildfires that, in a cruel rotation of malice, themselves release those loads of stored carbon into the atmosphere, further depleting the ozone to stimulate the cycle of warming.
Meanwhile, in another vicious feedback loop, the warmer atmosphere causes polar ice caps and mountain glaciers to melt at unprecedented rates, thereby raising global water levels. Although it occurs on a much slower scale than the melting of ice, air temperature determines the temperature of liquid water as well. So, as ice caps and glaciers release newly liquified H2O into the waterways, the oceans the water eventually enters are already warmer and more acidic than they were a decade ago.
Rising sea levels and warmer waters not only disrupt natural habitats, such as flooding nesting grounds of coastal birds like the wood stork in the Florida Everglades, they also acidify the water, poisoning the shellfish and marine life that provide a major seasonal food source for coastal communities including those of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes in southeastern Alaska who have detected increased levels of diseases like Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning in their harvests. Plus, warming ocean temperatures and higher sea levels are likely to amplify the intensity and impact of tropical storms and hurricanes by increasing their wind speeds and amplifying coastal storm surges.176 “Hurricanes and Climate Change.”
Along with solid and liquid H2O, gaseous water responds to the warming climate. Those processes of evaporation, condensation and transpiration that we learn about in school are the mechanisms that move water through its cycle, and temperature affects how fast or slow those processes move. In a warmer world, the water sucked up and held in the atmosphere may remain trapped in the gaseous state for longer before it’s released as a liquid. Consequently, the changing climate alters precipitation and humidity levels.
As I referenced earlier, the warmer, dryer climate leads to more frequent and severe wildfires in already drought-prone regions, and with every degree in warming it is projected that the area burned in an uncontained fire will double.177 “The Impact of Wildfires on Climate and Air Quality.” Moreover, it signals that the devastating fires that raged in California, the Amazon and Australia in 2019 and 2020, and arctic Siberia in 2020 are only a preview of the natural disasters to come. For instance, California’s 2020 wildfire season was its most devastating to date. Tantamount to Northland kauri, California’s charismatic megaflora, the giant sequoia , the Joshua tree (a yucca species) and the old-growth coast redwood are three historically resilient plant species that are being tested by a burning future.178 John Branch, “They’re Among the World’s Oldest Living Things. The Climate Crisis Is Killing Them.” Despite their unconnected ecosystems, hundreds of miles apart, all three species faced the consequences of forest mismanagement and the quickening clip of global warming in loss of life. The unprecedented fires also altered other aspects of forest ecology, killing or harming endangered California Condors by destroying their nesting grounds, and otherwise stilting rehabilitation efforts.
On top of the environmental trauma that unruly wildfires stoke, there is now added fear that smoke exposure from these fires, paired with the ingestion of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, could make the effects of the coronavirus pandemic worse given that when an immune system is overwhelmed by particles, fighting off a respiratory virus that also infects blood cells and circulates throughout the body, becomes even more difficult.
All along, the world’s most powerful nations have consumed resources disproportionately and taken unequal approaches to handling the consequences of their actions. Actions like opening offshore drilling, new coal and oil leases on public land, revoking bans on hunting animals in wildlife refuges, permitting effluent dumping from power plants to public waterways, loosening fuel-efficiency standards, revoking limits on methane emissions, and deregulating airborne mercury emissions from power plants exemplify a favoring of short-term economic benefits over long-term environmental health and prosperity in a sadistically unabashed manner. For clarity, all of that and more occurred in the United States in just the first one hundred days of our 45th president’s administrative term.179 Nadja Popovich and Tatiana Schlossberg, “23 Environmental Rules Rolled Back in Trump’s First 100 Days (Published 2017).”
Luckily, many of the above actions took form through executive action, making them largely reversable by that president’s successor. Though the harm they’ve caused to the environment and public ideologies in the United States is substantial.
To that end, in his four years in office, former president Donald Trump systematically revoked or rolled back 64 environmental rules and regulations, with 34 rollbacks in progress and counting. He also revived the Keystone XL pipeline project, rejected by his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, green-lit the Dakota Access Pipeline project, unwound the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and on November 2, 2020, he officially withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, under which 200 countries had pledged to significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Suffice to say, his administration exemplified a single-minded approach that favors short-term economic benefits for industry and profit over the long-term health of the environment and wellbeing of the human race. One founded on outdated ideology and an even more archaic attitude toward heeding the advice of indigenous and scientific communities.
The Dakota Access Pipeline project was shut down in July, 2020, joined temporarily by the Keystone XL oil pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The first was forced to shut down pending a new environmental review from a Federal Judge, the second’s construction was rejected by the Supreme Court, the third cancelled due to environmental lawsuits and delays and a budget increase beyond the utilities capabilities. All of which signal an increasingly convoluted legal landscape muddied by the shifting economies away from fossil fuels and growing demands of states for action of Climate Change. Despite these landmark rulings, over 9,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines were underway with an additional 12,500 miles announced in July, 2020, confirming that energy infrastructure in the United States had yet to reflect changing public opinion and the shifting economic landscape.180 Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer, “Is This the End of New Pipelines?”
A striking example of this dissonance is the dealing over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeastern Alaska. It is also an illustration of what Hori Parata described as “Conservation being conflicted with public opinion,” and a cost-benefit view of the natural world perfectly aligned with capitalist democratic government.
The arctic tundra landscape of ANWR is called “the sacred place where life begins” by the native Gwich’in people who live in Arctic Village on the southern edge of the refuge and are named after the caribou that roam the plains.181 Courtney Blackmer-Raynolds, “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” Like Māori, see all aspects of life, including land and religion, to be inseparable, and derive their spiritual connection to the land through their relationship with the migrating Porcupine caribou herd. In 1968, when oil was discovered on the west edge of the refuge, the Gwich’in people refused to relinquish their land in exchange for oil profits, unlike the Kaktovik village residents to the north of the refuge.182 Amy Corbin, “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” The fear was that oil extraction would threaten caribou populations, thus threatening their own spiritual and cultural integrity. To protect their traditional culture and oppose the drilling, they formed organizations like the Gwich’in International Council and the Gwich’in Steering Committee.183 Corbin, “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” They have also joined with other native and enviornmental groups to file lawsuits and advocate for the refuge. In spite of their efforts, Alaska remains a politically conservative state where oil finances 85% of the operating budget and residents receive annual oil dividend checks. In addition, drilling in the refuge fits nicely with the Trump administration’s narrative of resuscitating the fossil fuel industry and the livelihood of oil workers. As a result, ten thousand years of untouched landscape in ANWR that includes the birthing grounds of Porcupine caribou, along with the breeding sites for migratory birds and the prime denning area for threatened Beaufort Sea polar bears are now on the auction block.184 Kim Heacox, “America’s Last Wilderness Is about to Go to the Highest Bidder for Oil Drilling.”
Despite the efforts of native and environmental groups, on January 6, 2021, in a last ditch effort to sell off the land before President-elect Joe Biden assumed the office of the presidency on January 20th, a Trump-directed Bureau of Land Management scheduled an oil and gas lease sale for drilling in the 1.5m acre coastal plain, the biological heart of the 19m acre refuge.
Another demonstration of conservation being held up by the dance of politics and money is the battle over the United States’ Roadless Area Conservation Rule (dubbed the Roadless Rule by those who have watched it survive nearly 20 years of legal challenges in Alaska since it was established by Bill Clinton in 2001) which originally prohibited the construction of new roads, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on 58.5m acres of forestland nationwide. The Tongass National Forest, in southeastern Alaska, is our country’s largest uninterrupted forest at 16.8m acres and the Roadless Rule protects 9.2m acres of it from development.185 “Alaska Roadless Rulemaking Announcement.” Behind the 20 years of legal gymnastics to repeal the rule is the long-fought battle between industry (harvesting timber) and conservation (of old-growth stands). And while political and public persuasion touts the benefits of “opening up” the land to create jobs, far more economic possibilities lay in the tourism, recreation and fishing industries than in timber these days. Dan Cannon, Southeast Alaska Conservation Coalition’s (SEACC) Tongass Program manager, whom I managed to speak with in the early stages of this project, is of the mind that an intact Roadless Rule doesn’t hinder Forest Service activities. In fact, the rule was written to allow for FS approved projects and activity in roadless areas by timber harvesters through formal exemptions. There is no need for the rule to be repealed.
Since the USDA drafted an Alaska-Specific Roadless Rule in 2018 to effectively exempt the Tongass from the 2001 law, Cannon was quoted in an interview with Elwood Brehmer of the Alaska Journal saying that SEACC is working to reinstate the protections of the Roadless Rule. According to Brehmer, Cannon said that SEACC “expects the Forest Service to start planning timber sales in previously roadless areas soon, particularly if President Donald Trump wins reelection, and the commercial fishing, eco-tourism and other industries that benefit from intact forestlands will have to adapt.”186 Elwood Brehmer, “What Comes after the Roadless Rule Repeal?”
While Trump ultimately lost reelection, he did manageto repeal the rule. On October, 29, 2020, his Department of Agriculture published a new regulatory framework for the Tongass officially exempting it from the rule, meaning that the rule remains intact for the surrounding forests where timber harvests are minimal, but is lifted in areas where old-growth stands abound.
Hours after 46th President Joe Biden took office, he signed into action a flurry of executive orders hastening to enact his agenda to not only address the coronavirus and fumbling economy but also reverse many Trump-era policies in areas like climate change, immigration and racial equity. Meanwhile, his administration acted to freeze new regulations and reviews that Trump tried to finalize in his final days, upending some of the aforementioned destruction. Biden’s actions included launching a 100 day mask mandate and distancing on federal property and by federal employees and contractors, reversing Trump’s withdrawal form the World Health Organization, rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, placing a moratorium on oil and natural gas leasing in ANWR and suspend new drilling permits on federal lands and waters, rescinding rollbacks to vehicle emission standards and reestablishing a working group on the social cost of greenhouse gases and warming climate.187 Michael D. Shear, “On Day 1, Biden Moves to Undo Trump’s Legacy.”
Within his first 10 days, he unveiled further executive action on climate change which created a National Climate Task Force, committed to conserving 30% of federal land and water by 2030, and elevated climate change as a national security concern. This flurry of action in the midst of power changing hands underscores the complexities of collective change over time, especially when muddled with politics and money.
One particular achievement came on March 18th, 2021, when Deb Haaland was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and identifies as a 35th-generation New Mexican, in reference to her 800+ years of Pueblo ancestry. FN188 Haaland’s confirmation makes her the first Native American to oversee the Department of the Interior as well as the first Native American Cabinet Secretary. Interior manages federal lands amassing about 1/5th of the total area of the United States and liaises with the 574 federally-recognized tribal nations. The challenges are undoubtedly profound: the complexity of federal bureaucracy, the previous administration’s disregard for climate science or sacred ancestral land and grotesque intimacy with the fossil fuel lobby, and the history of the Interior Department’s role in the very genocide of Indigenous populations and theft of their lands.FN189 Despite this complexity, Haaland’s leadership offers hope for a transition to a different paradigm of land relations in the United States – a paradigm that may seem new to those who consider land to be a source of profit rather than a source of life, but which is wholly familiar to the generations of Indigenous occupants who have cared for this land for millennia. In the time since this project began in 2019, the United States’s environmental path forward looks a smidge more like the path set by New Zealand.
Compared to the United States, New Zealand is a glimmer of light in the global landscape of government approaches to handling the environment, primarily in its effects-based approach of legislation like the Resource Management Act. The RMA isn’t perfect, but it represents the larger pursuit of caring for the environment for future generations that both Māori and Pākehā share. If anything from New Zealand’s political history stood out during my time in Northland, it’s that while injustices are shelled out swiftly, progress is incremental. And to initiate environmental management that reinvigorates natural landscapes and ensures the future wellbeing of an entire country, it helps to have a tangible document to work with and say, well if this doesn’t work for reasons x, y, z, let’s try it this other way. With a framework of laws in place, residents and government officials who are unsatisfied can take steps to review and amend it to better serve their country’s future interests. In the circumstance of the RMA, that means working to repeal and rewrite the act – as Kevin Prime and his colleagues have done.
While New Zealand is more advanced in its environmental legislation and proactive regarding clean energy and green infrastructure than America – thanks all who toil away in the annals of government, do the groundwork of conservation and give voice to the Māori perspective of the land – I acknowledge the limits of comparing the approaches of nations operating on such different scales. What does warrant discussion, though, is that the efforts in New Zealand, both policy wise and community led, display an alternative to the status quo of larger, industrialized nations. An alternative the world would do well to adopt, if only incrementally.