Colonial Myths - Cultural Realities:
Sustainable Development in the South Pacific
Director, Watershed Systems
Centre for Catchment Ecology
Mount Cook Street, Twizel NZ
Sustainable development combines social, cultural, economic and ecological considerations within an ecological paradigm
called environmental conservation. By this approach, conservation and development are not competitive interests, they
are complementary activities operating within the same framework.
To implement sustainable development in the South Pacific, it is necessary to research and develop landscape systems
that maintain the ecological integrity of environmental systems. Sustainable development is defined by UN Agenda 21
protocols for the environment. Agreed at the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment held in Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil, they built on earlier conferences in Paris (1968) and Stockholm (1972).
Practical and applied models of sustainable development are urgently needed to build confidence in working with natural
processes and to demonstrate ways of restoring environmental systems. While scientific knowledge and technology are
available to restore the ecological functions of environmental systems, they are unlikely to be employed where they
conflict with colonial perceptions and cultural values.
Questions are raised in this paper whether colonial societies in Australia and New Zealand, are effectively preventing
the implementation of UN Agenda 21 protocols for sustainable development.
Haikai Tane BA(Hons) LLB MSc MNZPI MAURISA is Director of the Watershed Systems Centre for Catchment Ecology. Located in
the south island high country near Mt Cook, in 1999 the Centre for Catchment Ecology was elected the South Pacific
Station in a international network of R agencies, coordinating Agenda 21 programs for the sustainable development of watershed catchments. Haikai Tane is a
biogeographer, landscape ecologist and environmental planner with 30 years experience in Canada, USA, Australia and New
Zealand. Haikai is recognised internationally for R in geospatial information systems and environmental planning for sustainable development. In May 2000, Haikai Tane was
appointed Adjunct Professor in Sustainable Development at the UNITEC Institute of Technology, Auckland. This draft paper
was his inaugural professorial address.
The purpose of this paper is threefold. The first task is to summarise the extensive suite of principles contained in UN
Agenda 21 for sustainable development of the environment. The second task is to identify cultural attitudes and
conservation paradigms controlling land use and resource management in Australia and New Zealand. The third task is to
expose colonial myths that impede strategies for sustainable development in the South Pacific. References to practical
examples are made throughout to illustrate key points.
2. UN Agenda 21 Protocols for Sustainable Development
In 1992, over 100 heads of state and government, and delegates from 170 countries, attended the United Nations
conference on Environment and
Development. Held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this historic event was the culmination of 25 years of international
research and development on the scientific basis for rational use and conservation of the biosphere.
It began in 1968, when 326 experts from around the world convened at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris for a conference to
lay the foundations. This was the first major international event where scientist and other experts collaborated on
research for the rational use and conservation of the biosphere (UNESCO 1970). An important historic event in itself,
the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Biological Program,
and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, supported UNESCO in this initiative.
A key outcome of the 1968 conference was agreement that a new, integrated approach to environmental degradation was
urgently needed. Participants agreed that rational use and conservation of the biosphere required a cultural model based
on ecological approaches to resource use and conservation management. Called environmental conservation (Dasmann 1957),
this conservation paradigm involves a fundamentally different approach and framework than nature conservation (Tane & Dai 1993).
Unlike nature conservation that attempts to separate people from Nature, environmental conservation recognises that
human activities and environmental resources are inseparable. It requires conservation and development to be integrated
ecologically into multiple land use systems, not spatially separated into segregated zones. It is based on ecological
“there is no fundamental difference between natural, wild or modified, semi-natural or developed, domesticated or purely
artificial vegetations. The laws governing these ecosystems are identical.” UNESCO 1970
The central plank in UN Agenda 21 is sustainable development of the environment. It requires that environmental
protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process. Simply stated, conservation and development
shall not be considered in isolation nor as competing interests.
Twenty-seven articles for sustainable development were outlined in an 800 page action program with the goal set for
2010. The appendix to this paper contains a plain language, two-page summary. In addition to the 27 articles agreed
under Agenda 21, two general conventions were forged (one on climate, the other on biodiversity) and a declaration made
on the world’s forests.
The articles , conventions and declaration on forests need to be added to the 27 articles already agreed at the 1972
Stockholm Declaration. The range of issues and scope of actions are breath-takingly broad; they include poverty,
sovereignty, peace and war, empowering local communities, protecting indigenous rights and transfering technology.
Collectively, they are referred to as UN Agenda 21 protocols.
Nine years later is a suitable time to reflect on progress with implementing sustainable development in the South
3. Finding Our Place in Oceania
Our region is in the South Pacific realm. The geographic name for our region is Oceania. Located east of the Wallace
Line (van Oosterzee 1997) and extending halfway across the Pacific Ocean, Oceania unites Australia, New Zealand, New
Guinea and the South Pacific islands, (Figure 1).
Oceania evolved as part of Gwondwana before breaking apart and expanding into the Pacific basin. The common biogeography
of Oceania is remarkable in several ways: in its ecosynthesis of Antarctic, Australasian and Melanesian biota; its
surprising absence of ungulate hoof herbivores; its paucity of carnivorous predators; and its proliferation of birds,
bees and trees. This situation produced landscapes and environments distinctly un-European. More like another planet
than another continent is the description of Australia by renowned naturalist Eric Rolls (1985). Similar sentiments
apply to New Zealand.
History records the arrival of displaced peoples from Asia and the Pacific over the last millennium. While containing
relatively low populations of stone-age peoples, the scale of their impacts on the environment was substantial and
irrevocable (Flood 1990, Pyne 1991).
New Guinea and Australia were the first places settled. On biogeomorphic and paleoecological evidence, Koorinesian1
peoples arrived 100,000–130,000 years ago (Singh 1982). They occupied most of the habitable continent and many areas now
below sea level. Much later in the warmer, drier periods following the last ice age, some 5-10,000 years BP, Melanesian
and Polynesian peoples migrated out of Africa and Asia, crossed the Wallace Line and settled the South Pacific.
Traditionally enemies, Koorinesian, Melanesian and Polynesian peoples overlapped and merged in places creating
distinctive regional cultures (eg New Guinea). For the most part however, they remained separate.
Over the past 200 years, fresh waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia resulted in major cultural and ecological
upheavals for Oceania. The immigration and acculturation process continues unabated, only the ratio of ethnic groups
Multi-cultural communities in Oceania are forging new regional cultures through the exciting dance of ecosynthesis;
progressive adaptation and integration of people forging new ecosystems. However, periodic conflicts between ethnic
groups are commonplace. This is neither new nor unique in the Pacific realm. Earlier, Japan experienced similar
conflicts from successive, multiple immigrations. Gradually Japan evolved their own distinctive culture, merging
immigrant cultures from mainland Asia (China & Korea) with island and nomadic cultures from their own indigenes as well as sea-faring Polynesians.
As a result of multi-cultural immigration, the population of Australia and New Zealand are a polyglot lot. Dominated for
so long by the colonial cultures of immigrant peoples, little if any of their landscapes can be called natural or
pristine (Flood 1990, Flannery 1994, Brailsford 1996). Even remote alpine and desert regions have been transformed in
innumerable ways by the cultural activities of colonising peoples, their cultural and economic biota.
4. Cultural Imperatives for Human Settlements
Arguably the most important factor influencing the environmental performance of settled landscapes is the cultural
attitudes of the occupants. Societies view and perceive landscapes in fundamentally different ways that translates into
unique patterns of activities. Perceptions, practices and customs towards the environment reflect cultural attitudes,
spiritual beliefs and resource values (Tane 1996).
Yet as a society we lack environmental philosophies and cultural attitudes reflecting where we live. Our place in the
South Pacific is confused and undermined by colonial attachments to home countries. Perhaps with the exception of ANZAC
day, all our festivals and holidays are basically reflections of Middle Eastern religions or celebrations of decisions
made at Westminster.
The English parliament at Westminster, on the opposite side of the planet to Oceania, is still the legislative source of
national sovereignty and executive power for Australia, New Zealand and many of the smaller islands. I wonder how many
people remember that legislation enabling the Commonwealth of Australia and Treaty of Waitangi were authorised and
enacted by Westminster Parliament.
To avoid the violent, unruly racism of Australia, Fiji and the Solomons becoming regular events, Oceania needs
intelligent leadership and governments capable of validating multi-cultural societies in the South Pacific. It is also
necessary to diffuse the deep-rooted bitterness resulting from Koori genocide, Kanaka conscription and Maori slavery.
Respecting ethnicity is fundamental in multi-cultural societies. So is respecting the integrity of Papa-tua-nuku (Mother
Earth), cherishing the children of Tane Waiora (God of Nature) and protecting environmental resources. Our future
livelihoods depend on it for they are essential prerequisites for sustainable development, recognised by UN Agenda 21.
Resource Assignment Systems
Indigenous and colonial peoples come into conflict for a variety of reasons, not all worthy or admirable by any
reasonable standard of human conduct. At the heart of the problem however, are cultural values and beliefs relating to
Nature and how they are expressed in particular landscapes and environments. Treating land as private property, for
example, ubiquitous in European industrial societies, is a grave and continuing offense to many indigenous peoples in
The assignment of exclusive property rights through various land tenures remains a major source of cultural conflicts.
Resource assignment systems are essential for sustainable development, however they need to reflect the environmental
conditions in which they apply. In the prevailing circumstances, changing legislative models from town and country
planning to sustainable resource management is still treating the symptoms of dysfunctional colonial systems.
Australian and New Zealand land tenure systems are inherited from England. The history of freehold, leasehold and
license tenures dates back to Henry II and his attempts to sort out the rights and obligations of lords, tenants and
serfs in feudal society. While Australian property law’s longstanding creative streak in devising new tenures designed
for modern society has generated condominium and community titles, New Zealand has stuck rather stolidly to the English
feudal system of tenures, with the only significant concessions for iwi (tribal) reserves.
European assignment processes for resources and property commonly fail to accommodate indigenous cultural values. For
this reason, European models for nature conservation are referred to as eco-colonial institutions by indigenous peoples
of Oceania (Cox & Elmqvist 1993). This raises interesting questions concerning appropriate conservation models for implementing
sustainable development in the South Pacific.
Four archetypal models or paradigms are now in common use for conservation purposes in Australia and New Zealand: nature
conservation, heritage conservation, resource conservation and environmental conservation. How they are mapped and
modelled differs significantly, for they are based on different philosophies and purposes. Misapplication is a common
problem, often leading to divisive programs and even violent conflicts.
Nature conservation derives from the naturalist movement of the 19th century when royal domains and remnant wildernesses
became more valued by European society for their pristine, scenic and recreational qualities, rather than simply as
hunting, fishing and timber reserves. Originally, it did not matter that the composition of species or communities
included exotic species, so long as Nature was wild and unfettered. Assessments of nature conservation values commonly
include criteria outside the realms of science, including aesthetic and spiritual values. National Parks and Scenic
Reserves are examples, though many are now assigned at least in part, to major building and development projects for
Heritage conservation involves protecting outstanding historic estates, buildings and sites recognised by society as
important cultural icons. Landscapes of a particular cultural heritage, like Battery Point in Hobart, The Rocks in
Sydney and the grounds at Waitangi in NZ , are typical examples. Heritage conservation assessments are largely dependent
on technical assessments by architects and historians. As with nature conservation, heritage conservation assessments
can also include non-scientific criteria like artistic merit and aesthetic values.
Resource conservation is a technical discipline largely derived from the United States Department of Agriculture
programs developed by their Soil Conservation Service. Each resource assessment is considered separately. Soil, water
and wildlife conservation, common technical disciplines operating within this paradigm, are based on scientific
guidelines and assessment criteria. Land capability classifications, for agriculture, silviculture and wildlife
management, are usually based on resource conservation assessments.
Environmental conservation is a technical discipline derived from biogeography and habitat ecology and based on complex
systems theory. Sometimes described as environmental planning for sustainable development, its origins can be traced to
various sources, including American, Australian, Canadian and European environmental scientists working in the 1950’s
and 1960’s. The most recent of all of the conservation paradigms, environmental conservation integrates cultural and
natural activities into one holistic ecological framework, based on mapping land use habitats and assessing landscape
ecosystems. By this paradigm, economic activities are performance indicators of habitats and ecosystems, not separate
goals in themselves.
A few conservation models are hybrids, taking elements of two or more models and combining them for specific purposes.
Landscape conservation for example, can combine nature conservation and heritage conservation to preserve cultural
landscapes unified by their common cultural heritage. The original Hermitage site at Mt Cook National Park is case in
point, for it preserves building ruins, exotic trees and fireplaces in a nature conservation area.
Technical competency and professional capabilities in environmental conservation technologies have been slow to develop
in Australia and New Zealand. This is traced to a lack of training programs offering practical instruction in (a)
complex systems theory, (b) practical and applied biogeography, (c) habitat and landscape ecology and (d) geospatial
Implementing environmental conservation for sustainable development is also hindered by cultural perceptions and
colonial attitudes towards of the nature and role of science in conservation programs.
Guidelines and criteria for land classifications used for conservation purposes were part of training for resource
managers in New Zealand government agencies during the 1970’s. Trained to apply the different conservation models
appropriately, they were better able to resolve resource conflicts, as demonstrated in the 1970’s by the King Country
Land Use Study (Lands and Survey 1975).
Over the past decades, comparisons of various neighbouring cultures in the Pacific region, demonstrated a surprising
wealth of information about methods for managing complex environmental systems. Indigenous resource systems are
amazingly insightful and providing sound models for sustainable development meeting the needs of post-industrial
societies (Cumberland 1975, Ruddle & Zhong 1988, Tane 1996).
5. Changing Cultural Attitudes
Colonials carry with them cultural baggage they impose on their new home. When the colonialism becomes narrow-minded
parochialism, it prevents evolutionary change, destroying the beneficial heritage of traditional societies they seek to
displace. History is replete with examples of sustainable indigenous societies failing to survive when confronted by
This paradox is at the heart of environmental degradation in Australia and New Zealand. Contemporary society in Oceania
is still dominated by colonial practices, attitudes and institutions. Yet Kiwis and Aussies are proudly parochial and
deeply devoted to their adopted South Pacific homes as if they belong.
Parochial colonialism has proven extremely effective at preventing dynamic, adaptive and evolutionary environmental
strategies necessary for sustainable development. Colonial interests continue to blame pests, weeds and natural
“hazards” for environmental degradation, problems actually caused by resource exploitation and environmental abuse.
Beyond Pastoral Colonialism
Australia and New Zealand desperately need to develop new cultures and cosmologies for living in the South Pacific as
multi-cultural, cosmopolitan communities, living as integral parts of the environment.
An interesting example in this regard is Twizel in the South Island high country. Situated in the heart of Mackenzie
Country, the Twizel landscape was the exclusive domain of sheep and cattle for more than a century. Today, Twizel, town
of trees and forests, is a vibrant community, despite government efforts to wipe out the town and return the site to
Though developed for hydro energy production, Twizel has forged new functions and market catchments. It now services
local, regional and international markets for recreation, tourism, fishing, forestry and tree crops, mountain education
and training, and UN Agenda 21 research and development programs.
Twizel represents a unique achievement in transforming New Zealand’s pastoral culture. For the past 20 years, field
trials and scientific research have supported claims by international foresters that the Mackenzie Basin is the world’s
premier tree-growing region for commercial tree species, such as Douglas Fir, larch and hardy pines. Nonetheless,
colonial pastoral cultures and nature conservation interests seek to proscribe commercial tree species as environmental
weeds. While substantial public funding is still deployed in the eradication of potentially valuable forestry resources,
at the same time thousands of hectares are being planted by more enlightened landholders to the same forestry species.
In New Zealand the high country is famous for its flocks of sheep. For the past three years, the world leading fine wool
producer has been Donald Burnett, a high country pastoral farmer and forester born and bred at Mt Cook Station. With
over 50 year’s experience farming merino sheep, he attributes his success to organic farming methods, practises proven
by long experience and sound judgement. Like his forebears, Donald Burnett is a pragmatic visionary who has taken the
advice inscribed by his father on a stone memorial at Burkes Pass.
“O ye who enter the portals of Mackenzie to found homes, take the words of a child of the misty gorges and plant forest
trees for your lives: so shall your mountain faces and river flats be preserved to your children’s children, and for
As we enter a new millennium the signs are unmistakable; the pastoral age is over in the high country.
Overcoming Colonial Mindsets
When people and communities are overwhelmed by events, when the rate of change is too much to cope with, or they just
don’t understand what is happening, they have a tendency to retreat into the past. By imagining the good old days in the
home country as the golden era, people feel justified in replicating their colonial past in the present. This is the
typical museum mindset of colonial people afraid of living in the present and facing their future in fundamentally new
A major challenge for NZ society is to overcome the parochial mindset of colonial people and communities unable to
embrace and benefit from change, especially from naturally restoration of landscapes to their ecological potential. A
classic example of the museum mindset of colonial peoples is natural resource management in the South Island high
Over the years, colonial myths of high country landscapes have convinced otherwise intelligent people that degrading
rangelands and floodplains are natural, (Tane 1999b). Regardless of historic and ecological evidence to the contrary, of
woodlands and forests existing previously and flourishing now in the high country, present resource management practices
set unrealistic performance standards on Nature, by seeking to enforce grasslands and gravel beds when the ecological
imperative is woodlands and forests.
The pursuit of purely native plant assemblages in museum landscapes, like treeless tussock grasslands in the high
country, reflects the nescient perceptions of colonial cultures. Left to Nature, aggrading foothills, fans and
floodplains in high country basins stabilise under pioneering plant communities and in time, mature under complex
communities of forests, woodlands, shrublands and wetlands. Only exposed and unstable alpine habitats and minor
proportions of the major floodplain rivers are naturally represented by mobile silts, sands and gravel.
In most places, degraded, unstable and eroding rangelands and riverbeds are neither natural nor necessary. They are
cultural artefacts maintained by resource mismanagement of mountain watersheds and riparian ecosystems. Stuck in their
colonial mythologies, resource managers persist in spraying, burning, bulldozing and eliminating naturally regenerating
riparian and rangeland communities. They have become very proficient at turning resource prospects into environmental
problems for which they alone claim to have the answers.
6. Problem Oriented Perceptions
As we enter the new millennium, industrial settlements everywhere are decaying from within. The costs of replacing their
engineering infrastructure are becoming prohibitively expensive. Some cities, like Glasgow, Toronto and Melbourne, are
in danger of becoming industrial artefacts surviving in a museum world while living off the public purse.
Stripped of superficialities, the surrounding rural countryside is faring little better. Highly specialised
agro-industries are engaged in chemical, biological and genetic manipulation of essential ecological processes to
achieve production goals. Slowly but surely they are undermining the viability of soil, water and other environmental
resources; destroying landscape ecostructures that took millennia to develop and adapt to local environmental conditions
This is in not an anti-development plea for preservation. On the contrary, it is the colonial myth that regards
development as competing with conservation that is fundamentally flawed. This is a plea for sustainable development of
dynamic, evolving ecosystems, with human communities and their cultural and economic biota accepted as increasing
Viewed positively, planet earth is being united by cosmopolitan cultures through the processes of human ecology. Humans
and their habitats are integral parts of nearly each and every ecosystem. With careful design and sustainable
development, they have the profound ability to enhance environmental systems including biodiversity. To pretend
otherwise is folly.
Environmental degradation in Oceania is critical and requires urgent attention. At all costs we must avoid narrow
cause-and-effect problem solving solutions based on linear logic. In the post-industrial era (1950-2000), with hindsight
we can see that alarmist arguments used to justify expensive programs merely addressed symptoms of decay in urban or
rural ecosystems. One program after another is implemented without stopping to consider whether the cultural landscape
model was intrinsically flawed or unsustainable.
In these circumstances, perfectly normal indicators of natural recovery through ecological processes were maligned as
invasive pest and environmental weeds. In more enlightened cultures, ecologists know them as herbs, wildflowers and
important floras for the birds and bees. Professional agrologists recognise them as Nature’s guardians of soil and water
ecosystems (Cocannouer 1950).
Preoccupation with pests and weeds is part of the preoccupation with problems characteristic of colonial,
agro-industrial societies. It does not seem to matter how successful or useful the plants or animals may be as
resources. With the colonial fixation on resource problems, they must be wasted, not wanted. It seems incomprehensible
to people operating in colonial mode that anyone in his or her right mind could suggest otherwise or want to utilise
With few exceptions, colonial science and technology is too busy serving industrial mythologies based on specialised
systems to notice the world view has changed. They are too busy solving specific problems to see the prospects.
Astronauts viewing earth from outside were quick to appreciate the immense damage to environment systems caused by these
short-sighted, colonial cultures (Kelly 1988).
New cultural perspectives, based on living with Nature in the Pacific realm, are urgently needed if we are to restore
landscape ecosystems to health and rebuild landscape ecostructures essential to sustainable development of human
communities (Tane 2000).
7. Shedding Cultural Baggage
During the twentieth century, industrial societies were characterised by the politics of exploitation (Black 1968).
According to this viewpoint, nature resources are economic fodder available to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, the
industrial futures market speculates in their increasing scarcity. Viewed from this perspective, the economists’
marketplace is a shibboleth, a catchy collection of esoteric phrases and assumptions, obscuring a profound lack of
common sense and practical understanding of the world we live in.
Where the absence of economic resource values defines environments available for disposing of wastes and pollutants,
then we have fundamentally compromised ecological sustainability. As a result, the children of post-industrial societies
are inheriting contaminated sites and polluted environments not only stripped of their valuable resources, but without
properly functioning landscape ecostructures (Tane 1999).
Sadly for society at large, in the field of natural resource management, the industrial, scientific paradigm has
degenerated into a problem solving, technological fix-it kit. Reviewing cultural attitudes and changing social paradigms
is the furthest thing from the minds of most resource managers. By focusing on the publicly conspicuous symptoms of
environmental degradation, (eg. pests, weeds and indigenous biodiversity) the natural resource specialist is rewarded by
popular acclaim and generous funding for projects that side-step or ignore the widespread destruction of complex
environmental systems (Tane 1996).
Biological, chemical and genetic controls of ecological processes are not only a grave threat to achieving sustainable
societies. These abhorrent practices have grown to such proportions around the world, they have become an insidious and
greatly expanded war against Nature. When applied to people, these same policies and practices of killing, controlling
and manipulating living organisms through chemical and biological agents are recognised as crimes against humanity by
international law. A growing number of scientists believe it is time that Nature was similarly protected (Nash 1989).
Similarly, colonial practises for segregating native and exotic floras into separate zones according to the principles
of nature conservation are considered eco-colonial impositions by indigenous peoples in Oceania (Cox & Elmqvist 1993). Because they discriminate on the basis of race, genera and species, they are nothing less than
biological apartheid applied to flora and fauna. In the long term, these approaches are fundamentally destructive and
For far too long, positive, ecological approaches to environmental restoration have been ignored. Working with Nature
has become a slogan not a practice.
Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring heralded the boorish, brutish but largely forthright stance of industry and
government towards the use of chemical biocides, things appeared to change for the better. Now decades later it appears
what really changed was the sophistication and subtlety of their operations. The previously proud and overt approach was
replaced with covert and cleverly disguised operations, marketed as clean and green.
It is time to take serious stock of our role in Nature. We should re-consider celebrating the clever, sophisticated
culture of industrial society, science and technology. In a few hundred years it transformed human settlements around
the world from sustainable agricultural societies to industrial cities and settlements in degraded and polluted
environments. While marvellous industrial inventions and new technologies make life easier, they came with a Pandora box
of deadly environmental diseases and catastrophic weaponry.
Unfortunately, far too many misguided people now believe in industrial science, in the sense that if a scientist says
something, then it must be true. The key word is believe; which means accepting the truth of something not known to be
true from direct or verifiable knowledge, or practical experience.
Crafts, trade and business people do not believe in their tools, they know and use them with skill and discrimination.
Scientists verify and validate knowledge, by systematic research and development and objective measurement. It is
difficult for some people to understand that science is a knowledge-based methodology, not a belief system.
Industrially based, colonial societies tend to believe in concrete and steel in much the same way the economic
rationalists believe in the abstract market place. They are implicit beliefs and assumptions that have grown to become
industrial and colonial myths.2
8. Models of Sustainable Development
One persistent, colonial myth is that organic farming is a subjective belief system, certainly not sound science. As a
result, organic practitioners are commonly ostracised and vilified. This particular myth ignores the fact that organic
models of the real world have been an important part of pure science from classical times to the present (Stoddart
When Clements gave the name ecology to complex organisms operating in Nature, he was applying the organic model of the
real world. So was Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine when he described how complex living systems seemingly defy the
second law of thermodynamics. By self-organising feedback processes, called bio-cybernetic functions, complex ecosystems
can maintain a far from equilibrium state through negative entropy, pumping out disorder inherent in closed systems
(Prigogine et al 1972, 1984).
To most people this is esoteric science, beyond normal comprehension. Unable to relate this important discovery to the
real world, they are equally unable to change their entrenched beliefs or prejudiced behaviour.
The problem lies in the preoccupation of industrial agro-business with soil and crop chemistry, to maximise short term
yields. The integrity of environmental systems is not part of the equation.
According to a leading spokesmen from the Chinese Academy of Science, addressing an international workshop on Agenda 21
issues in sustainable development (MRL 1999), a ten year research program demonstrated that the western industrial
approach to agriculture is based on false and misleading assumptions. Maximising individual crop yields is only achieved
at the expense of serious losses in total production and livelihoods, by sacrificing multiple resources using the same
land, and by compromising long term viability of environmental systems.
Industrial preoccupation with crop and stock specialisation is also reflected in the nescient perception and spurious
claims that organic agriculture is a belief system. It is important to note that the objective of organic agriculture is
very similar to Chinese goals of total sustainable production from multiple crops and stock using the same area of land.
While organic agriculture is historically based on traditional mixed farming systems, at the same time it is firmly
based scientifically on complex systems ecology and the bio-cybernetic control systems of perennial polycultures; the
traditional cultural approach in Asia and Oceania (Ruddle & Zhong, Cumberland xxxx).
More importantly, two decades of research in Asian-Pacific countries have demonstrated unequivocally that the use of
inorganic chemicals, toxic to aquatic and terrestrial organisms, is inimical to sustainable agro-ecosystems (Ruddle & Zhong 1988). Sustainable development of farming and forestry systems is not achieved by maximising crop or stock yields
in specialised monocultures, but by interdependent land use and landscape systems meeting multiple nutritional,
cultural, ecological and economic objectives (Ruddle & Zhong 1988).
According to the ancient wisdom of Asian-Pacific cultures, cleverness is polished stupidity. With respect to
conventional, industrial yield maximisation strategies it seems the ancient saying begs the question. Have industrial
scientists failed to heed the lessons of history once again and been far too clever for everyone’s good? Marshall
MacLuhan obviously thinks so when he notes that
“the speciaslist is one who never makes small mistakes while heading towards the grand fallacy”
Developing Trust in Nature
Communities wishing to assume responsibility for restoring degraded landscape ecosystems (and their underlying
ecostructures) urgently need working models and practical examples of sustainable development. Australia and New Zealand
could take a leaf from China’s Agenda 21 Program. Based on practical and applied R projects undertaken with local communities working closely with scientists and administrators in field based locations,
they are learning by doing, carrying out experimental research with the people who will do the implementation. Computer
technology is introduced and applied through community R processes to obtain the best mix of traditional culture and contemporary science.
Asian and Pacific cultures know traditional materials, such as quarried stone, durable timbers and rammed earth, are
often more reliable and endure longer than concrete and steel. Where concrete and steel lasts several decades, a century
at best, well-constructed earth, stone and timber structures can last hundreds and even thousands of years. Both methods
have their place in Asia. In Australia and New Zealand, traditional materials and related technologies are compromised
by building and development specifications based on industrial standards.
Concrete and steel structures are not nearly as durable or reliable as once thought. Engineering infrastructures built
last century, like bridges, buildings, roads, dams and similar facilities are increasingly failing. Many need replacing,
costly repairs and even removal. World wide, it is considered a huge problem.
This predicament highlights a serious cultural dilemma. Colonial society in Australia and New Zealand places its
confidence in things built of concrete and steel, while confounding the ways of Nature and destroying environmental
systems. A lack of respect for Nature and distrust of natural process (such as floods and droughts that trigger and
control environmental systems) is at the heart of the dilemma (Tane 1996).
The most recent attack on the Manifold deficiencies of natural processes and environmental systems comes from genetic
engineers. Proclaiming that natural processes are inefficient and environmental systems are unreliable, they offer
genetic solutions with long-term consequences that cannot be evaluated. This raises the interesting question whether the
ethics of conflicting interests should disqualify people with professional or commercial interests, from assessing new
technologies such as genetic engineering.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the industrial politics of resource exploitation go hand in hand with
the cultural practices of environmental degradation (Black 1968). Such societies are described as Future Eaters
(Flannery 1994) with ecological footprints that cannot be sustained (Wackernagal and Rees 1996).
9. Comments and Conclusions
Important questions need to be addressed. Are the colonial cultures and scientific technologies dominating Oceania,
perpetuating the politics of exploitation while pretending to be clean and green? Does Australian and New Zealand
society empower and enable ecologically sustainable development or effectively prevent it?
Clear and concise answers to these relatively simple questions are unlikely given cultural values are at stake. Colonial
societies tend to presume their culture is sacrosanct, that Nature is capricious and the environment is not working
Today, communities around the world are facing the challenge of repairing and restoring essential life support systems
degraded by colonial societies. It seems the albatross around society’s collective neck is the cultural baggage
remaining from centuries of industrial colonialism.
In the Asia-Pacific region, integrated agriculture-aquaculture systems (China), perennial polycultures (Polynesia) and
successional polycultures (Melanesia) have sustained communities and landscape ecostructures for thousands of years,
while achieving levels of productivity and livelihoods, while incorporating waste recovery and reuse systems, unheard of
in colonial societies (Ruddle & Zong 1988).
Post-industrial society has few useful precedents available for guiding or inventing new futures based on sustainable
development. We are witnessing the demise of industrial society without a vision of the future. What is even more
challenging and exciting, we are unavoidably part of creating the new cultural paradigm.
Sound, healthy and resilient environmental systems are fundamental for sustainable development. They our life support
systems, growing and adapting organically to support and regulate atmospheric and biosphere systems, including wind,
water, solar, soil and resource ecosystems. They support and maintain habitats, communities and their cultures in ways
known to few.
Of course modern marvels are impressive and plentiful, from sky towers to very fast trains and supersonic planes. It
seems humans are capable of engineering just about anything. But when it comes to working with Nature and respecting the
integrity of complex living systems, industrial society has proven wholly inadequate.
A wealth of experience and a growing body of knowledge show colonial myths and industrial cultures are among the most
powerful agents preventing sustainable development of environmental systems. The sooner we lay them to rest the better.
This is the challenge for Unitec Institute of Technology; to retrofit the campus with practical and applied models of
sustainable development based on health, science and technology, within a multi-cultural framework reflecting its place
in the Pacific.
At the time of the Moari land march in 1975, a number of leading government administrators of the day mooted strategies
for New Zealand finding its cultural place in the South Pacific. Some of their suggestions to me and submissions to the
New Zealand Land Use Advisory Council are incorporated in this paper. I am pleased to acknowledge their support and
encouragement. They included Bill Robertson, Warren Hawkey and Ian Stirling (all Surveyor Generals at one time), plus
Edward Ward (Director General DSIR) and Professor Ken Cumberland. I wish to thank Keith Adams for his helpful comments
on the first draft and Brendan Hoare for his courage in leading by example.
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