Russel Norman is absolutely right to say that scientists must be free to perform their academic duty to report environmental degradation. But in talking about concerns raised by Massey University scientist Mike Joy, the Green Party co-leader should also have noted that any comments from academia should be fair and accurate. If not, they can expect to be the subject of well-warranted criticism. Such is the case with Dr Joy’s comments about New Zealand’s environmental record.
Dr Joy told the newspaper that although this country promoted itself as “100 per cent Pure New Zealand”, the reality came nowhere close to matching this. “We don’t deserve 100 per cent Pure, we are nowhere near the best in the world, we are not even in the top half of countries in the world when it comes to clean and green,” he said.
Maybe Dr Joy has not travelled a lot. I have. To say we are not even in the top half is bonkers. No doubt he has some criteria that he bases his claims on – but the criteria he uses will not be ones most people would regard as vital for clean and green.
But the reality of New Zealand is also a long way from the bottom half of the countries of the world in terms of pristine environments. Whatever its deficiencies, it is nonsensical to place this country in the company of the world’s more polluted nations.
The 2008 Environmental Performance Index has NZ 7th highest in the world. The Greenest Countries Index has NZ at 19th out of 141. We are 13th lowest for air pollution. So of course not perfect, but Dr Joy’s smearing of NZ as being in the bottom half is just cherry picked data to make shock headlines.
Dr Joy is also making something of a habit of this practice. In an Opinion article in the Herald in April last year, he exclaimed that “far from being 100 per cent pure, natural, clean, or even green, the real truth is we are an environmental/biodiversity catastrophe”. This implies a situation where there is great damage or suffering. On no account could that be considered close to reality.
We have had a big loss of biodiversity. But that is more a historical issue. Yes many species were wiped out 150 years ago. So does that mean no one should visit New Zealand today?
Academics have a right and responsibility to comment publicly on issues of importance to the community without fear or favour. Their expert knowledge makes them an important part of any public discussion. But their comments must be appropriate. Dr Joy’s exaggerations fail that test. If he wants his criticism to be treated seriously, it will have to be expressed in a more judicious manner.