New Zealand Musings

As I type this we’re winging our way back to Auckland and tomorrow, after 30 days on the road, we’ll begin our journey home.

New Zealand has been fantastic. Strikingly beautiful with rolling hills, rugged peaks, and gorgeous coastlines within easy reach from anywhere in the nation. The people are open and friendly but hold strong views which they share unhesitatingly. They want to protect their land and their Kiwi culture. They poke fun, often sharply, at the Aussies and worry (as do people in many countries in today’s world) about unchecked migration. China, in particular, was on the minds of many that we met and they seemed to view the huge crowds of Chinese tourists here for Chinese New Year with very mixed feelings.

The nation’s splendid isolation at the bottom of the world seems, however, to also create a certain insularity as well as a sense of removal — a separateness from the problems that dominate the news elsewhere in a world buffeted by problems that swiftly flow across our national boundaries.

Perhaps most striking to me was that here in New Zealand — a country seemingly so in tune with its natural surroundings — many people appeared to believe that climate change, global warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification — although issues of great concern –were all problems that would touch New Zealand less profoundly than they are other spots on our planet. I heard conservationists bemoan government indifference to unsustainable fishing practices, violation of law, and the sacrifice of habitat for endangered species because commercial fisheries declared there was “no problem.”

That may not be a fair characterization. I’ve only been here for eight days and I’m no expert on the nuances of the policy debates. I know that there are always points on both sides of the equation so I want to tread carefully.

But I do worry that we cannot always afford to tread carefully given the challenges that lie ahead for the planet’s future! At least some Kiwis I met worry that commerce will triumph over common sense and, if history is a guide, they may have reason for concern.

Today, for example, folks scoff at the decision to import rabbits to New Zealand. Apparently the proponents of the idea thought rabbit pelts would be great for trade. But the rabbits became a national nuisance.

And folks are even more derisive about the choice to import weasels and stoats to kill the rabbits. Those creatures, of course, became a major biodiversity threat in their own right as they turned to dining on the nation’s endemic birds. The birds, many of which were flightless (because they had never had to worry about predators) were far easier to catch than rabbits. And the nation saw numerous indigenous species join the giant Moa and other flightless birds that had been hunted to extinction by Maori and English settlers.

Then there was the decision to import possums. Another great idea it seemed for commerce! But…you guessed it…possums too have become out of control pests, eating bird eggs and chicks, and spreading tuberculosis to cattle.

Previous generations also imported gorse seed to create hedges like those on the Canterbury Plains. But now gorse is an out of control invasive weed whose uprooting is a recurring challenge demanding considerable investment of time, effort, and money to control.

As an outsider, it is a bit ironic, given this history, to listen to Kiwis warn of all the things that swim, crawl, creep, and bite that can kill you in Australia. “Nothing like that in New Zealand” they crow. But although that may be true, the Aussies might argue it is better to live with the devils you know than those you create with the law of unintended consequences.

Folks here talk about their hope that the current generation has learned the lessons of the past, but I wonder. Surrounded by the vast ocean tracts that keep others at bay, it is easy to go your own way.

But even here, at the bottom of the world, I’ll keep my fingers crossed like those Kiwis who hope that the nation has truly learned from ill-considered choices of the past as it prepares to confront the challenges of the future.

Our current journey of over 9000 miles, five countries, and seven time zones reminds us that no matter how remote a spot may be we the world grows smaller and more connected all the time. And this trip has reminded me that we all share a collective responsibility for the stewardship of our planet; an obligation to those who follow us. I hope that all of us are up to the task.

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