View Director-General Al Morrison's speech "On the Origin of the Species", delivered to the Island Invasives - Eradication and Management conference in Auckland, 8 February 2010.

Speech summary

Conservationists must not appeal to intrinsic value alone in the battle to save our species. We must be able to argue their importance in the natural cycles and systems that humanity relies on to survive and prosper.

The health of our native species indicates the health of our ecosystems, which in turn determine the health of the services that flow from them, and upon which we rely. We are dependent on this natural capital. Investing in it provides a healthy return.


2010 is the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity.

Theme years – even under the UN banner – can too easily pass by with little more achieved than the already committed renewing their commitment. We must not let that happen in this, the year of Biodiversity.

Social surveys indicate that biodiversity is not a readily understood word. I do not much care for it and have been guilty of dismissing it as no more than a complicated way of saying our native plants and animals. That is wrong, of course. Biodiversity is not confined to endemic species, and it also encompasses the inter-relationship between species, the ecological health of their habitat, and the state of the eco-system services that flow from them.

It is a complex web upon which much depends. We should not shrink from the word. but one of our key tasks this year is to increase general awareness and understanding of biodiversity and what it means. That includes a better realisation of our place and role as a species within nature’s systems.

We can do that on present knowledge, but there are significant gaps in what we know and understand about our biodiversity, and too frequently the information we have takes us no further than to advise a precautionary approach. We need to know more; much more. It is to that purpose that this conference follows on from the 2001 meeting in this city. The proceedings of that meeting and the further research and collaboration that emerged from it have proved invaluable. It is timely to again meet to share knowledge and best practice, reassess priorities and set new objectives. That is the work of this conference, and the workshop that is to follow in April.

In the past, conservationists’ inherent interest and intellectual thirst for greater knowledge about biodiversity was sufficient to bring us together. A belief in the intrinsic value of nature and an ethical responsibility to protect and preserve was sufficient purpose.

Intrinsic value was the driving force of the legislation passed in New Zealand 22 years ago to establish the Department of Conservation, and the justification for placing one third of New Zealand's land mass, much of its fresh waters and some marine functions under conservation management.

We must maintain that high ethical commitment. It is part of what distinguishes us as a species. But to rely on it alone is to expose biodiversity to the dangers of those who do not share the same values, have the same level of appreciation, or exhibit the same degree of commitment. We have the opportunity to leverage off a growing pragmatic reasoning for protecting and enhancing our biodiversity, and there is too much at stake not to do so. 

Since the 2001 conference, there has been a slow, belated and somewhat reluctant global recognition that the degradation and destruction of ecosystems on a massive scale is destroying the biodiversity that provides the services that we rely on for our prosperity, and ultimately our survival.

This gives added purpose, and a sense of urgency, to your work. If humanity is to give itself the best chance, then we need to understand the interrelationship between species, places, and ecosystem services much better, and the critical importance of respecting, protecting, enhancing and creating biodiversity health.

This situation that we find ourselves in is somewhat humbling. The plain simple fact is, the planet is not at risk, but we are. In its 4 to 5 billion years of existence, planet earth has been through many radical environmental changes. Species have come and gone as a result. Dinosaurs existed for 165 million years before their mass extinction in a catastrophic event. When they became extinct, new forms of life evolved in the new environmental conditions, and the planet continued to spin.

How long we as a species have existed depends on your evolutionary starting point, but it is certainly no more than three million years and arguably only 90,000. Either way it’s considerably less than the 220 million years that New Zealand’s tuatara have been around.

We are nothing but a brief blink of the eye in the life of the planet. It was here for several billion years before us, and if we become extinct, there is no reason to believe it will do anything other than continue on for billions of years after us. The oil peak, deforestation, climate change – none of it is of any concern to the planet. The dependency is entirely ours. If we cannot live in harmony with the natural systems that allowed our evolution and are the key to our ability to survive and thrive as a species, then the problem is ours, not the planets.

Further more, it is of no moment to the planet whether the changes we are experiencing to our detriment are the result of our actions or natural causes. The best that the skeptics of anthropogenic climate change can do is absolve us and draw us towards threatened species status free of blame and thus with a clear conscience. Their protestations will have no impact on nature’s systems, or the inevitable outcome of degrading those systems to a point that they can no longer support us.

This situation that we face is neither new, nor unique.

In 360BC Plato described the Athenian’s destruction of nature’s systems through deforestation, and commented on their political failure to implement a solution that had been drawn up. This self-destructive behaviour marked the decline of Greek supremacy.

History is littered with civilizations that have sown the seeds of their own destruction by pushing nature’s systems beyond their ability to sustain the society that depends on them.

This behaviour runs counter to the instinct of species to replace themselves with their finest and fittest. But it is explicable for a species with the intellectual ability to build behaviour around value systems. Environmental exploitation typically advantages the present generation while the costs lie in the future. So an ethic of self-interest is sufficient to justify capturing for yourself the immediate benefits that can accrue from environmental exploitation, and transfer the costs to future generations. And if your conscience is bothering you, all you need do is comfort yourself with the age-old excuse that future generations will discover new solutions to clean up your mess.

Two factors do, however, make the present-day situation significantly different to that faced by past civilizations.

The scale of our environmental exploitation is such that the effects are borne by water and air far beyond the boundaries of the worst perpetrators. The impacts are not confined to the culprits; they are global. So no boundary smaller than the planet itself can be drawn if we are to put things right.     

Second, the future has caught up with us and the costs of environmental degradation that once seemed so distant as to be unreal are now ours to pay. Or if we refuse to pay, then the consequences are ours to bear.

We are not the only species that has sown the seeds of its own demise.

Scientist John Flux records that for 607 islands where the fate of introduced rabbits is known, the population died out in more than 10 percent of cases. They ate themselves out of house and home.

More specifically, in 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to St Matthew Island, west of Alaska, by the United States Coast Guard to provide an emergency food source. The coast guard abandoned the island a few years later, leaving the reindeer. Subsequently, the reindeer population rose to about 6,000 by 1963 and then died off in the next two years to 43 animals. A scientific study attributed the population crash to the limited food supply in interaction with climatic factors.  By the 1980s, the reindeer population had completely died out. 

The difference between us and the reindeer is that we have the intelligence to know what we are doing, see the implications, and do something to avoid it. The question is whether we have the wit to acknowledge that we cannot defeat nature, the smarts to work out what we need to do to live in harmony with it, and the will to take the necessary corrective action. The evidence to date is not comforting.

Ignorance is neither a reason, nor an excuse, for inaction. In Plato’s dialogue he records how the Athenians developed a solution to the deforestation of their catchments.  The problem definition and the solution were not missing, but the political will to act was. Sound familiar? Two thousand four hundred years on, the failure of Copenhagen is a repeat performance.

There could not be a better place to make this point than New Zealand. Colonisation took place in an era of some knowledge about the complex impacts of introduced and invasive species. But it had little impact on those who sought to recreate their home country on the other side of the world amidst a completely different native biodiversity. The results were predictable, and within short time the colonists were both engaged in trying to mitigate the impacts on their economic endeavours while continuing to introduce problem species. Don’t look for the logic!

The Dog Nuisance Ordinance was passed in 1844, but its bark didn’t bite. The ubiquitous Scotch Thistle was the subject of no less than five provincial government ordinances between 1854 and 1862 in attempts to prevent its spread, and various other ordinances around that time were designed to prevent gorse and broom spreading. The weeds took no notice of the will of Parliament.

The joy of seeing little bunny rabbits hop hoppiting in the fields of colonial pastures quickly wore off as they tore in to the pastoral economy and in 1876 Parliament passed the Rabbit Nuisance Act. It didn’t stop the rabbits breeding like rabbits.

By 1875 introduced sparrows had eaten their way through crops to a point that the farmers convinced the Canterbury Provincial superintendent that bird kill was in order. Farmers’ clubs paid a bounty of a penny half-penny a dozen for sparrow eggs, and one club alone gathered in 21,000 eggs. But Cock Robin’s revenge was short-lived and the sparrow plague returned.

It was 70 years before a bounty scheme was introduced to control deer numbers, with marginal effect, and despite years of debate it took 96 years for official policy to declare war on possums.

The entire effort failed dismally to turn the tide of devastation wrought by introduced pests.

All the while there was, in many cases, sufficient data and warnings to have avoided the problems.

A case in point is the introduction of stoats.  Landholders wanted to introduce stoats to control the rabbits. Ornithologists in England warned that the stoats would more likely turn on New Zealand’s bird life and protests here led to Parliament passing a Bill in 1876 to prohibit their introduction. But the Upper House of the time, dominated by landowners plagued by rabbits, overruled it. The stoats came in, the rabbit problem worsened, and the bush fell silent of birdsong.

Similarly John Cullen was warned against introducing heather into Tongariro National Park but he did so anyway, motivated by a vision of a Scottish game reserve. The heather took over and remains a problem to this day, but the game birds that were supposed to feast on it, failed to survive.

In 1872 Nature editorialised against the reckless transportation of species to New Zealand and predicted: “the importations will inevitably become the greatest of nuisances”.  One hundred and forty years on, taxpayers, ratepayers and landowners in New Zealand are forking out some $800 million a year, every year, just to control the menu of animal and weed pests that threaten our native biodiversity.

How has this happened? Stupidity, ignorance, and a selfish ethic provide some of the reasons. So does the disconnect with nature that urbanisation brings. But there is also an institutional tool that helps to drive this behaviour.

Currently, the way we describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use and management, and capture the benefits and subsidies from that with a clear conscience.

The widely accepted international measure of an economy is gross domestic product, GDP. The International Monetary Fund is the keeper of GDP measures. It can be measured in terms of income, expenditure, or production, but over time all three produce much the same result.
None of the measures take a systematic account of environmental impacts. Creating an environmental mess is good for GDP. It typically produces immediate benefit for the development at issue, and down the track the cost of cleaning up the mess generates further economic activity.

This subsidisation of the developer, and transfer of costs to future generations, is built in to the system. Conventional economics discounts environmental impacts and that in turn affects the way we think, talk and act.

Thus financial debt is seen as something that must be paid back. Institutionally, we reward early payment, penalise late payment and punish non payment.

But we are reluctant to even talk about environmental debt, and when we can’t avoid it, we use the language of cost and debate whether we can afford to pay it back. We typically conclude that we can’t, or certainly not in full.

So when the current recession revealed a collapsing financial system, some 12 trillion dollars was found in quick time to prop it up. But when nations met at Copenhagen to try and restore a collapsing environmental system, that sense of urgency and decisiveness was missing.  The cupboard that stored trillions for financial collapse, was apparently bare.

GDP is increasingly being questioned internationally as a suitable measure of economic growth, and not just because we look like being the generation that has to start paying back the huge cost of cleaning up the mess from previous generations.

GDP measures wealth but takes little account of its distribution. If an increase in GDP translates into improved wellbeing across society, then it is a valid measure of progress. But the trend for increased wealth to be retained in fewer hands now means an increase in GDP does not necessarily translate in to higher standards of living generally. Measurements show that for a number of wealthy countries, GDP is rising while general wellbeing is falling. That is a recipe for social instability, and social instability is dangerous.

If GDP is failing as a measure of both social stability and environmental sustainability then surely that is a powerful incentive to find a new construct that measures true progress.

It is no easy task to construct one. The simple solution is to balance economic, social and environmental considerations and reach a pragmatic compromise. But that won’t do it. Living in harmony with nature’s systems; living sustainably, is not apart from the economy, it is a key component of it. Nature’s systems lie at the base of any economy. If they are not functioning efficiently, then the economy cannot function efficiently. If we destroy them, we destroy the economy. Accepting a definition and measure of wealth that discounts the impact of our activity on those systems ultimately acts against our own interests. It exposes us to the risk of threatened species status, and ultimately to extinction as a species.

I make no apology for spending this time on economic measures at a conference on invasive species. It lies at the heart of why the loss of habitat, and the accompanying loss of species, is so poorly appreciated and accounted for in public policy.

The context it creates for you is to appreciate the need for conservationists not to appeal to intrinsic value alone in the battle to save our species. We must be able to argue their importance in the natural cycles and systems that humanity relies on to survive and prosper. The health of our native species indicates the health of our ecosystems, which in turn determine the health of the services that flow from them, and upon which we rely. We are dependent on this natural capital. That is the economic of eco-systems and biodiversity.  Investing in it provides a healthy return.

Since your last conference there has been good progress in controlling invasive species on both the prevention and control fronts. But the declining state of our biodiversity requires even more rapid progress. If we are to be more effective in this critical work, and we need to be, then the people who are going to provide the knowledge to make that happen are you. This is a great opportunity to share your thinking and determine what needs to be done in the decade ahead. I wish you every success in this endeavour.

Back to top