I was looking for something else and came upon this review I wrote for the CIS magazine Policy in its pre-Andrew Norton days.
I’m always surprised when I read old stuff. It’s never as I recall it. Always a bit better or worse than I thought. Anyway, I remember being a bit unhappy with this review when I wrote it, but on re-reading it, it seems OK to me.
And since this was written in 1998 before this site became my ‘blog of record’ I thought I’d post it here FWIW.
Review: Conservation Strategies for New Zealand
edited by Peter Hartley
New Zealand Business Roundtable, Wellington, 1997, 526pp, NZ$39.95
This is a thoughtful, provocative and very interesting survey by the Tasman Institute of nature conservation strategies in New Zealand (and to a substantial extent Australia). The book provides a logical categorisation and presentation of issues with the first six major chapters presenting strong arguments in a range of different areas. Subsequent chapters on the structure and performance of the New Zealand Department of Conservation, Maori development and conservation policy and historic and cultural heritage were of less interest, partly because by that stage of the book, many of its major themes had been well worked.
The book is a powerful market-oriented polemic against the statist and conservation purism of much green politics. It benefits from a sound theoretical knowledge as well as broadly based practical knowledge of specific examples of market-oriented conservation in New Zealand and Australia (as well as some other countries especially the United States).
Particularly instructive sections include:
a section on sulphur-dioxide trading in the US (pp. 86-92)
a case study of the privately led restoration of Tiritiri Matangi Island in New Zealand (110-119)
a case study of a listed Australian conservation company Earth Sanctuaries Limited (321-335).
Each of these case studies together with a panoply of other (usually less extensive) studies and anecdotes illustrates in a very useful and thought provoking way the essential themes of the book. In particular:
market based instruments are likely to achieve their objectives much more efficiently than regulation,
voluntary action can often be superior to government regulation and management even where substantial free rider problems exist. This is because voluntary action is more likely to stimulate innovation, leadership and broadly based community knowledge, commitment and participation than direct government action.
conservation professionals are sometimes (too often?) reluctant to compromise and improvise where such measures might jeopardise the local ecological integrity of particular ecosystems. Where such compromises are necessary either because economic or ecological resources are limited the local population of a species might be sub-critical purism can worsen rather than improve environmental outcomes. For instance, conservation professionals might oppose the importation of some endangered species from one area because it contaminates local biodiversity, even when the alternative might be the likely local extinction of the species. Conversely, they can cling to pure conservation projects beyond the time when it is clear that they are losing viability and something else needs to be tried.
An important defect in the book goes both to its style and substance. It is unnecessarily tendentious in arguing for private sector conservation and against public sector activity. Thus the reader is never really confident that a balanced picture is being presented a picture in which the reader can have confidence in the expert making his case. Environmental policy generally is bedevilled by so many classic economic problems particularly externalities and the resulting free rider problems that the best solutions are likely to come from an intelligent mix of collective and privately motivated initiatives and co-ordination.
The book constantly rehearses ways in which the private sector can benefit the environment (even though at first glance one would not imagine it had the incentive to do so). This is a very useful antidote to a dominant theme in much green politics and the automatic assumption that whenever there is a problem something ought to be done (i.e. by governments). However, it is a long way from justifying a general bias against the public sector in favour of the private sector. For example, at one point the author comments that, were it not for the distortions introduced by the Department of Conservation, the private sector would probably have better research infrastructure than the Department on conservation matters. While the private sector might well be more efficient than the public sector in some areas of research, assertions of the more general kind made here ought to be accompanied with some carefully considered evidence if they are to be convincing.
This defect renders the book both less persuasive and less penetrating in its analysis. At one stage there is a brief discussion of the development going on at Philip Island (Victoria) to build an extensive seal observation infrastructure. Keen as ever to point out the advantages of private sector involvement which I for one do not need to be persuaded of the authors pass over what seem to me to be the most interesting policy questions. What kind of regulatory regime would optimise the private sector contribution? What is the appropriate mix of markets and regulation? Presumably some developments would be better than others. Private sector development of seal observation on Philip Island would be better done by Earth Sanctuaries Limited than Disney Corporation!
Chapter three attacks the Conservation Acts central requirement that government conservation agencies optimise the intrinsic value of their conservation assets. The chapter points out the ambiguities of this formulation but it is not wholly convincing that the idea of intrinsic value is unworkable. It is a vague notion to be sure. But then so is the test of reasonableness which our common law and statutes are shot through with.
Many people in the electorate who value conservation do have a strong sense that there are intrinsic environmental values. If they continue to think this, the Act will probably continue to reflect those thoughts. A more accommodating approach might find constructive ways of engaging with concepts of intrinsic value of pointing out their weaknesses and in so doing improving them rather than simply rejecting them. I often found myself in broad agreement with the authors value judgements on conservation. But this did not save me from a certain unease. Any general definition of the rationale of conservation if it is to be useful is unlikely to be without ambiguities.
Chapter six was for me the most exciting chapter of the book. The idea of net conservation value trades is highly subversive of much of the sentimentality and absolutism of green politics. (Net conservation value trades occur when some conservation goal is traded off for some higher value conservation goal. Thus, a government department might agree to mine site rehabilitation of a lower standard than otherwise required in return for conservation spending on the surrounding area which is of a higher conservation value.) Nothing like a healthy dose of the market to concentrate the mind and get people to really show you the colour of their money! The chapter discusses the likely environmental benefits which could flow from allowing environmental assets to simultaneously meet other needs, such as, for instance, low impact sustainable harvest of native timber.
Ultimately, however, even here the authors do not really engage with the other side. Net conservation value trades make sense, one would hope, even for environmentalists. But trading takes place in the context of negotiation and uncertainty of outcome is implicit in any negotiation. In such a circumstance value trades are almost always problematic. Who is to say that by refusing to trade off something (say very high quality mine site rehabilitation) one might nevertheless still get what was being offered in its stead (say further conservation expenditure on the environs of a mine)? The authors do not grapple with this problem.
I would have liked to see the brief chapter on historic and cultural heritage further developed. Today we focus almost entirely on the idea of preserving what we have by prohibiting or restricting change. I live in Port Melbourne where the streetscape has been frozen by restrictions on change to rows of lacklustre terrace bungalows. The hidden costs of this to owners and renters must be worth the construction costs of a Sydney Opera House or two. The demolition of a few terraces might allow us to make a heritage trade up to something like Hundertwassers House in Vienna. But, alas, the heritage agenda in this country is focussed on preserving what others have left us often even if it is mediocre rather than coming up with our own contributions to heritage.
The issue of greenhouse gas abatement (or more particularly carbon sequestration) does not seem to rate a mention. (I didnt read every word, but I had a pretty good look throughout the book and in the index). This is an extraordinary oversight given that carbon sequestration offers the potential for major private sector involvement in and funding for conservation.
Conservation Strategies for New Zealand is lively, interesting and best of all provocative. For my taste it is a little too provocative in one sense of that word. It is too belligerent. But it is also provocative in the best sense. It sets one thinking.