Community Conversations
We are not alone in our polarised opinions

John Ogden reviews Jared Diamond's "Collapse - How societies choose to fail or succeed".

Currently an independent study of community views about the ecology of Great Barrier Island is in progress, with support from the Local Board. You may have seen this mentioned in the Bush Telegraph, or been visited by Shirley Johnson or Marie McEntee who are gathering, and attempting to summarise, community perspectives. Their first report (“Enabling an ecological vision for Aotea-Great Barrier Island: Understanding community perspectives and aspirations” August 2015. Aranovus Research). has been presented to the Local Board, and the second phase of the research, concentrating more on specific stakeholder groups, is commencing.

We often buy into the argument that the community issues we face on this island are unique to us. Not so.
Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Collapse – How societies choose to fail or succeed” uses the Bitterroot area in Montana USA as a current example of the polarization that occurs in a community as people work towards a shared vision for their environment and future.

The issues he discusses are the same as we have here and made me realize that these are global issues faced everywhere – we are not alone on Barrier. I quote: “ The polarization in community is along many axes: rich versus poor, those clinging to a traditional lifestyle versus others welcoming change, pro-growth versus anti-growth voices, those for and against governmental planning, and those with and without school age children. Fueling these disagreements are the issues of a state with poor residents but attracting rich newcomers.” Sound familiar?
On rising land values, shrinking school rolls and limited jobs: “The influx of newcomers, and the resulting rise in land prices, contribute to the plight of Montana schools…. Montana born children are leaving the state because many of them aspire to non-Montana lifestyles and because those who do aspire to Montana’s lifestyle can’t find jobs within the state.” Insert GBI in place of “Montana” and Island for “state” and the statement sounds familiar.

On the issues of governance: Like rural communities in general, “Montanas tend to be conservative, and suspicious of government regulation. That attitude arose historically because early settlers were living at low population density on a frontier far from government centres, had to be self-sufficient, and couldn’t look to government to solve their problems. Montana folks especially bristle at the remote government telling them what to do. (but they don’t bristle at the Government’s money of which Montana receives about a dollar and a half for every dollar sent from Montana to Washington).” ( Note that currently GBIs is subsidized c. $4 to $1 from Auckland City).

On farming: The loss of economically viable farming as is also an issue for the state: “The shrinking profit margins, and increasing competition, have made hundreds of formerly self supporting small farms uneconomic. Land prices are now 10 to 20 times higher than a few decades ago… The farmers have no choice but to subdivide and sell their land to support themselves after retirement. For a farmer now, his land is his pension fund”.

On the influx of new-comers: “The largest group of immigrants consist of early retirees, supporting themselves by income that they continue to earn from their out-of-state businesses. That is, they are immune to the economic problems associated with Montana’s environment” “Because the rich out-of-staters are attracted to Montana by its beautiful environment some of them become leaders in defending the environment and instituting land planning.”
Some of them believe “The longer we wait to do planning, the less landscape beauty there will be. Undeveloped land is valuable to the community as a whole: it’s an important part of that ‘quality of life’ that attracts people here.”

The humorous comment “ There is too much raucous debate here….” could also be attributed at times to our debate about the future of Great Barrier’s environment and prosperity!

This is a book worth reading. It sets out the issues. If the community, as reflected by the Local Board’s decision to progress an ecological vision for the future, is to make collective decisions we need to accept differences and find the common ground. It is from that core of agreement that we can progress and protect what I believe we all value about living here: the supportive community, the bush-clad hills, the coast, the ocean.


Environmental News Issue 35 Summer 2016