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A crucial connection to the web of life

We have a new understanding of how some of the activities we are lucky enough to be able to experience in New Zealand can help us meet the challenges of climate change and sustainability, says Rod Oram.

Summer’s always the perfect time to relax and refresh ourselves amidst the beauty and inspiration of our country. So why not make this summer particularly special by experiencing some of the emerging signs of a deeply sustainable New Zealand?

How about:

- thrilling to the sounds of the teeming bird life in a native bush restoration project;

-enjoying an exhilarating bike ride on one of the new cycleways in towns and countryside nationwide;

- helping with a beach, coastal, land or waterway conservation project;

- visiting a farm that’s learning to work better with nature, so its land, water and biodiversity are regenerating;

- devouring new (to you) dishes of locally grown food; and

- experiencing some delightful new technology such as an electric car, bike or scooter.

In a sense most of those activities are well established. But what is newer is our understanding of the greater benefits of them. Each in their own way can help us meet the great challenges of climate change and sustainability.

Crucially, they are also fun, fulfilling and hopeful. We benefit personally from them while we contribute to the greater goals. Yes, each of us has only an infinitesimally small impact. But if an infinite number of us together around the world act, learn and do much more we will ensure a sustainable future for humans on the planet.

Of all the resources humankind needs on this great journey, inspiration is the most crucial, I believe. If we are awed by nature, our life support system, we will fight hard to turn back the rising tide of destruction we’ve unleashed on it. If we are heartened by the determination and creativity of other people, we will revel in their success and eagerly contribute our own talents and energy.

We’re a lucky people. We can find nature in all its glory in abundant places in our land and in our seas. But it is nature much diminished. Our native bush, for example, is just a remnant, its bird life just an imperilled few survivors.

Only 10 human generations ago, the flocks of birds were so vast, the first European visitors marvelled from their ships some kilometres offshore at hearing the birds onshore. As Joseph Banks, the naturalist on Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, wrote in the Queen Charlotte Sounds:

"This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore... The numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats. Their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard...the most tuneable silver sound imaginable."

Bit by bit, though, we’re bringing back the bush and the birds in sanctuaries on islands and mainland. To find one to visit near you, Te Ara, our national online encyclopaedia offers this map.

While some of these sanctuaries are decades old, the campaign against predators of birds and bush has turned recently and rapidly into a vast citizen-led movement. First, in 2012 Sir Paul Callaghan, one of our great scientists, threw down the challenge to us to free our country from predators by 2050; and in 2016 the Key Government declared it a national policy.

Thousands of predator-free groups have sprung up around the country. Often, they are true community-building endeavours, bringing together all sorts of people in a common cause. Having got a taste for working collaboratively, hopefully many will expand into other collective activities in the environment and community. To find a group near you, search this map on the Predator Free NZ website.

The healthier our natural environment is, the more climate-changing carbon its lush foliage absorbs, the more resilient it is to climate change, and the more delightful a place it is for us to be.

Almost every community in the country has volunteers working to achieve these benefits. One of the highlights of my year was visiting Vision Kerikeri  in the Far North. In the company of one of its founders, Rod Brown, I walked some of the community’s “forgotten” riverside tracks it has rediscovered and rebuilt, and its nursery which supplies native seedlings for restoration projects across the region.

Plenty of national environmental groups have a wealth of local activities too, such as Forest and Bird’s branches and Sustainable Coastlines. Compared to our efforts on land, however, we’re doing much less protection and restoration of our coastal and marine environments. DoC lists these marine reserves but many such as the Auckland Islands and Kermadecs are far offshore.

Meanwhile, farmers are escalating their efforts to reduce the adverse impact of farming practices on their land and waterways. Some of the best examples are winners in the NZ Farm Environment Trust awards.

While Fonterra, Federated Farmers and other organisations offer farm open days around the country at various times of the year, it’s harder to find a farm to visit during the summer. The best way is a farm stay, which many tourism websites offer, such as this one

Another way is to tap into your farming whakapapa. While most of us our townies these days, quite a few of us have uncles, aunts, grandparents and distant cousins who were farmers. It might take only a few phone calls to get you in touch with the current farmers of the land. They might be glad to make the connection, and to show you around.

But cleaning up current farming practices is only the start. A much bigger reinvention of food and farming is just starting around the world, as this column described last week. The goal is to grow food in ways that help regenerate the soils, waterways and biodiversity of farms. Then the ecosystem is more bountiful and resilient, the food healthier and the climate-changing emissions much lower.

Such a revolution here and elsewhere in the world is a key focus of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship and its twice-a-year New Frontiers conferences, as this article describes. (Disclosure: I’m a fellow).

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation offers this profile of two such New Zealand farms, one in Hawke’s Bay and the other in the Waikato.

Another example is the Waikato land the Williams family have farmed for four generations. Today, they combine organic farming, wetlands restoration, robotic milking, bee keeping and food crop diversification as some of their key practices. This article describes their journey, and this website their range of activities. The family welcome visitors, but only a few at a time, so please contact them first at gina@ourlandofmilkandhoney.com

Townies are also long-time growers of food in their gardens and shared spaces. But a big shift is starting here too at home and abroad. Urban agriculture is becoming a lot more sophisticated and ambitious. Two Christchurch examples are Cultivate which has four mini-farms in the city, and Ōtākaro Orchard, which has big plans for the land along the Ōtākaro/Avon River which earthquakes have made unsuitable for housing.

A quick online search will likely reveal similar initiatives in your neck of the woods, so you too can enjoy some fresh picked food even if you don’t grow your own. And for another change of diet, why not try a vegetarian restaurant or two this summer. Vegetarians New Zealand's website lists many of them around the country.

While I’m on the topic of cross-overs between town and country, I’d be remiss not to mention bikes. (Disclosure: I have a few and ride a lot.) The burgeoning networks of cycleways in urban and rural areas are one of the great joys of life, and particularly welcome for encouraging more people to cycle.

Finding cycling routes in town is fairly easy thanks to the likes of Google Maps, this journey planner or free maps from your local council. Out in the country, there are now a wealth of local cycleways in beautiful parts of the country that make up the still-developing National Cycle Trail; and the Kennett Brothers’ website lists rides all over the country and offers cycling route books.

Even better, try a town or bush ride on an electric bike. You get all the pleasures of cycling with much less effort. A fair few bike shops these days are renting them. Or at least try an e-scooter. Either way you’ll get a great buzz.

The same’s true for electric cars. For an affordable and easy way to experience them you can sign up with one of the growing number of EV sharing schemes such as Yoogo Share (in Christchurch & Auckland), Mevo (in Wellington), Cityhop (in Auckland) or YourDrive.

If you get hooked on EVs and fancy buying a new one, Drive Electric lists all the current makes and models available here. If your budget is more modest, a growing number of used car dealers are importing second hand ones, almost all Nissan Leafs from Japan with a few from the UK. Check out the hundreds of listings on Trade Me.

Depending on your motoring needs, a second-hand Leaf has a lower total cost of ownership and use than many comparable petrol or diesel cars. The NZ EV Owners Facebook page is another good source of advice.

If an EV or plug-in hybrid doesn’t yet meet your needs or budget, you can still make good choices about which petrol or diesel vehicle to buy based on fuel economy and other factors. To compare various models, use the total cost of ownership tool run by the Government’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency.

When you find yourself saving energy and money on cars, your thoughts might turn to your other uses of energy. EECA has extensive guides for homes and businesses. The NZ Green Building Council is also a very good advisor on both. Its new tool for home owners is particularly useful.

Later, you might become more conscious of reducing your carbon footprint in other ways. Calculating your household or business footprint is straight forward with the online tools offered by Enviro-Mark Solutions, a business of Landcare Research, the Crown Research Institute, which has a strong reputation for its insight, integrity and advice with its large roster of corporate clients here and abroad.

While its carbon calculator for business is a sophisticated device embracing all aspects of operations, its one for households meets that much simpler need.

Given we’re still waiting for clean technologies in some areas of our lives such as air travel, offsetting the carbon we do use in the meantime is a legitimate activity if we buy carbon credits in projects that are strictly monitored for their carbon sequestration. Enviro-Mark sells credits, for example, in the Hinewai native bush regeneration project on the Banks Peninsula.

Ekos, a Wellington company, is another provider of carbon calculator and offset services. For example, Drawa is one of its rainforest protection projects in the Pacific. The income from the credits is making it economic for native landowners to preserve the forest, while building up other businesses such as keeping bees to make honey from rainforest flowers. (Disclosure: I buy Drawa credits.)

Air New Zealand has recently revamped its offset programme to make it easier for people to use, and more transparent about which projects the money goes to. The cost is small, a mere $2.44 for a flight from Auckland to Christchurch and $24.45 from Auckland to Chicago, a 15-hour flight, and the airline’s newest and longest route.

Should you offset your car’s use of petrol and diesel too? Theoretically not. The fuel companies are already meeting their obligations under the Emissions Trading Scheme by buying credits to cover those fuels and handing them over to the Government for cancelling.

However, they give no details about those New Zealand credits so motorists have no sense of connection with, say, the forest they came from. If you want to start becoming a more conscious consumer, you can easily use the Enviro-Mark or Ekos calculators and offsets to do so. If you spend, say, $1,500 a year on petrol you’ll need less than 2 tonnes of carbon credits, which will cost you $70 or so.

This sense of connection is crucial. The better we understand those relationships, the more effectively we can improve them. After all, each of us is just a thread in the infinitely complex web of life supported by the planet’s biosphere. Yet we’re putting an increasingly enormous strain on those threads, whether it be through the scale and way we use resources, or the species we’re pushing to extinction or the climate we’re cooking.

Of course, this summer is all about enjoying walks in the bush, swims in rivers and sea, bike rides, good food, fun with family and friends, travel, adventures and all the other exhilarating and inspiring things about life in Aotearoa New Zealand. Hopefully, it is also a chance for us all to get a glimpse of the future we want.

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