“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters”, Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, told Stuff NZ last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”
Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.
“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith told the online media site. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”
This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-oriented “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.
Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.
In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with everyday New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.
In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and head of CANA is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.
The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of “going-it-alone” on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliment.
Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism”, is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan“Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.
Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.
The bombing, a French intelligence operation, sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand's Overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.
Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.
Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.
The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record (the average temperature nationwide during the summer months was 18.8°C), while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.
Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.
New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. According to Smith, plenty more is to come.
And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one”, Smith told Stuff NZ.
But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.
Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.