Hard News by Russell Brown


Fact and fantasy

The truth is, there are plenty of people who would like to see Dr Mike Joy silenced. Some have even sought to have him sacked from his job at Massey University -- and been given short shrift by vice-chancellor Steve Maharey. But Joy has never before had to endure anything like yesterday's odious New Zealand Herald editorial.

Joy, you may recall, first came to national media attention via  John Key's BBC Hard Talk interview, in which Stephen Sackur contrasted Joy's environmental warnings with the "100% Pure" branding and the Prime Minister, replied, somewhat infamously, by insisting that "for the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure."

The current hostilities began when the New York Times ran a story contrasting New Zealand's "100% Pure" tourism branding with the realities of its environmental management, quoting Joy.

“There are almost two worlds in New Zealand,” said Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in environmental science at Massey University in Palmerston North. “There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality.”

The clean and green image has long been promoted by the isolated country in its striving to compete in world markets. But an international study in the journal PLoS One measuring countries’ loss of native vegetation, native habitat, number of endangered species and water quality showed that per capita, New Zealand was 18th worst out of 189 nations when it came to preserving its natural surroundings.

Dr. Joy said that for a country purporting to be so pure, New Zealand seemed to be failing by many international environmental benchmarks.

Joy was initially puzzled -- he hadn't spoken to the New York Times. But he had, some months ago, spoken to Charles Anderson of the Times' sister paper, the International Herald Tribune, who wrote the story that appeared on the Times' website.

The timing was important: Joy's quotes turned up just on the eve of the Hobbit premiere, just as the new "100% Pure Middle Earth" slogan was being pitched to world tourism markets. Last week on Facebook, Joy made it known that he'd had an aggressive email about the Times story from lobbyist Mark Unsworth, written at a time of night when lobbyists should probably think twice before hittting send:

Dear Graeme and Dan and Mike

You really do have no idea do you.Why don't you ask your students about what they think of Mikes economic treachery

You guys are the Foot and Mouth Disease of the tourism industry .

Most ordinary people in NZ would happily have you lot locked up.

Cheers Mark

Joy also said he was also referred to as a "traitor" by Sean Plunket on Plunket's Newstalk ZB Wellington show, and that when he was granted an on-air response, Plunket raised his Facebook links with Green co-leader Russel Norman as evidence of his political motivations.

On the strength of that, we booked Joy to appear on this week's Media3. And then, yesterday morning, came the Herald. The editorial itself is essentially defamatory. It repeatedly accuses Joy of deliberately "exaggerating" and "overstating" problems with New Zealand's contaminated waterways and declares that "such overstatement is the stuff of advertising, not academic observation." [NB: Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy has taken issue with this paragraph, which he feels doesn't properly characterise what was said in the editorial. See his complaint and my correction here.]

These are extraordinary accusations to make against a scientist, and surely warrant evidence. The Herald's editorial writer provides none. The editorial's argument is essentially "well, surely that can't be true!"

And then it concludes:

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.

Sit down, shut up, keep it to yourself.

Happily, the Association of Scientists moved quickly to back Joy and condemn the Herald.

The editorial states unambigiously that there is currently no great damage being done to New Zealand’s enviroment. This is manifestly incorrect, as NZAS President, Shaun Hendy points out: “On a per-capita basis we have one of the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the world and data from NIWA’s National Rivers Water Quality Network shows that our water quality is declining, with the health of a large proportion of our lakes in danger from agricultural run-off”.

Of serious concern is the emphasis in the editorial on the ill-timed nature of Dr Joy’s remarks. The clear statement is that the potential damage to New Zealand’s reputation, and economic benefit of “big-spending American tourists” outweighs the need for truth in public debate.

No one is suggesting that Joy or anyone else should be beyond criticism. But his critics should be able to do what he does here on interest.co.nz: list and cite evidence for their views:

Over the last twenty years New Zealand’s analysis of the national water quality monitoring network has revealed significant declines in almost all measured water quality parameters3.

A 2004 study of more than 300 lowland waterways revealed that ninety six percent of them in pastoral catchments and all in urban catchments failed the pathogen standard for contact recreation.  More than eighty percent of the sites in pasture catchments exceeded guideline levels for phosphorous and nitrogen4.

Now forty three percent of monitored lakes in New Zealand are classed as polluted5 (almost all lowland lakes) and groundwater nitrate levels are rising as well with thirty nine percent of monitored sites nationally showing increases6.  Human health is also directly impacted with now an estimated 18 – 34,000 people annually contracting waterborne diseases7.

These declines in the health of freshwaters are for the most part related to agricultural impacts; excess of sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen as well as faecal pathogens8.  The deterioration is matched by dramatic declines in freshwater biodiversity: now more than sixty percent of New Zealand’s native freshwater fish as well as the only freshwater crayfish and mussel species are now listed as threatened with extinction9.

As Stuff columnist Nicola Toki put it last week:

Let me dumb it down a little for the Mark Unsworths of this world. It is not people like Mike Joy who are "risking jobs and incomes from decreased tourism to New Zealand". It is our own mucky, degrading habits, and a lax approach to environmental care and regulation, most notably taken by the current government.

There's more than talk to all this at the moment. This week's Listener editorial takes a well-informed looked at two developments:. First, the delivery to government of the Land and Water Forum's third and final report on water standards -- and the Environment Minister Amy Adams' subsequent sidelining of the forum in favour of "a seemingly secret group of officials." And second, Primary Industries minister David Carter's "savaging" of Horizons Council's groundbreaking One Plan for water management on economic grounds.

In a column in yesterday's Dominion Post -- and republished here -- Gareth Morgan and Susan Guthrie accused Carter of deliberately misrepresenting Landcare Research modelling to back his claims about the likely impact on farm profits of the One Plan proposals.  You'll note: they didn't say "this can't be right" -- they analysed the modelling and concluded the minister's use of it was "about as intellectually sloppy as you can get."

The stakes are high in these issues and there are huge implications for our major export industries and our quality of life. That's why any responsible news media organisation should seek to engage with the message -- and not shoot the messenger.

Dr Mike Joy will be joining us as a guest on Media3 this week. If you'd like to attend the recording on Thursday, we'll need you to come to the Villa Dalmacija ballroom, 10 New North Road, Auckland, at 5.30pm.

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