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Some Water Myths

Thursday, July 30, 2015, Chris Perley's Blog

The following was published in the Hawke's Bay Today 4th July 2015.

I was surprised at the title of Dr Jacqueline Rowarth’s 30th June talk to an audience of the Hawke’s Bay Rural Business Network: “Water – urban myth and rural reality.” The title did not suggest an open examination of all the non-scientific values that underlie all our lives and thinking. You’re a bunch of dreamers; but we have the facts. But which facts?

No one lives by facts alone, especially where those facts are bounded by our ideas and choices; we choose these ones, but not those ones. There are always values and ideas underpinning our choices, you might say the myths we live by; for instance that water is a resource rather than something with far deeper meaning, and that anything flowing out to sea is a ‘waste’. And then we measure what we think is important from within that worldview, and call it objective data, facts, reality. That is the whole point of classics such as Frankenstein and Dr Strangelove. Beware the narrow technocrat who has no wider vision or the wisdom to know what is important and what is not.

So to present a black and white polemic as if one side has a grip on supposedly-objective reality, and the other side deals in myth, is a complete nonsense. It smacks of ‘scientism’, where science shifts from being a useful servant to answer the wise questions of society, to a master, even a cult. Worse in this case, a master with a corporate industrial land use agenda. Then we are presented with their facts wrapped up in their rhetoric presented by their PR machine, trumpeting ‘science’ as if that means wisdom.

Aristotle would be rolling in his grave. He wrote brilliantly about how mere data and technology are useful servants to the greater intellectual virtues of knowing what is ethical and good, and the ability to make a wise judgment in a particular context requiring breadth and foresight ('Phronesis' or practical wisdom).

We ought to side with Aristotle over anyone presenting a narrow view. And that is the supreme irony; our reality is steeped in values, our myths. What values underlie the idea that we should produce ever more undifferentiated products such as milk powder? What values decide we should ignore others’ ‘reality’ of land degradation, our economic trends, climate change and rural community decline?

Leading the debate just with data rather than a sense of what is important and wise in life leads consistently to Frankenstein failings. You can quickly get the trumping of what is good by what is expedient or mathematical. The injustice of the lynch mob can follow – a few powerful people may be very happy (let happiness be our chosen measure) to hang the innocent man, which outweighs his lonely voice of unhappy dissent (or the soon-to-be-lynched river perhaps, who cannot even cry out its sadness). But all the happiness data is there to justify ‘their reality’ that we ought to lynch him – despite his innocence, despite the principles of justice which can be conveniently termed ‘your myths’.

Understanding and questioning your own worldview and values is critical to understanding. By not acknowledging their own values, spokespeople for a commodity view of life do an incredible disservice to good science, and continue to justify degradation and the lynching of our future.

To use selected data to justify the unjustifiable also does an incredible disservice to where the conversation ought to focus – within the realm of our shared values, vision, the meaning of our land and our connection to it, our future generations. Discussing our hopes and dreams and key principles of how we treat land and life is the first step to deciding what regional development and land use strategy is best. Data can inform parts of that strategy, but is not equipped to direct it.

The positioning of urban and rural does another disservice to that necessary discussion by positioning people as either for you or against you. That does nothing to further a shared vision for all people of Hawke’s Bay. We all want a better world for our children, and how we bring together what moral principles and goals we choose to guide us requires that we work together without the nonsense of rural-urban splits and power games.

We can only hope that in the future the Hawke’s Bay Rural Business Network will encourage the wider discussion about where we are trending and the role of industrial commodity thinking in those trends. This is a point we ought to be discussing; not rationalising business-as-usual behaviour and the degradation of our lands and rivers. The precious myth that growing ever-more, ever-cheaper food at the expense of the environment is somehow a good thing continue to destroy the economic and social potential we have in this place, while exacerbating the risk of catastrophe. Questioning our commodity strategy is vital; and understanding that our economic, social and environmental goals are co-dependent, a point the silo-thinking reductionists will never get, locked as they are in their myth that the advancement of one requires the degradation of another.

We all know there is another way of looking at this picture of water, land and people. Many of us – rural and urban alike – do not want to see our rivers lynched just because some powerful interests see life that way, and provide selected data as justification. That is not wisdom.

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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