Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The unraised lake

For an illuminating insight into the perils of industrial
‘progress’ I warmly recommend Kennedy Warne’s
article on Manapouri in New Zealand Geographic
(November/December 2009: the first few paragraphs
are here). It’s a masterly summary of the fight in the
late 1960s and early 70s to save Lake Manapouri from
being raised for a hydro-electric power scheme—a fight
that, in effect, gave birth to the modern conservation
movement in New Zealand. It begins thus—

On March 5, 1959, Charles Turner, engineer-in-
chief of the Ministry of Works, addressed the
Southland Progress League in Invercargill. The
country’s prosperity, he told the meeting, was
‘balanced on too narrow a base.’ The time was
ripe for ‘exporting our rainfall in some other
form than meat or wool.’

—and goes on to tell us that Turner believed it would be
a ‘crime against humanity’ not to exploit the lake’s
energy potential. ‘I cannot support the philosophy,’
Warne quotes him as saying, ‘that the natural beauties
accessible to the few should necessarily be preserved
to the detriment of the many.’

The few and the many: yes. How exactly do you define
those groups again? Turner, it seems, didn’t bother;
nor did the Labour and National governments of the
day, which unconditionally supported the idea of
raising the lake. Only a long and dedicated public
campaign was able to overturn the decision and save
the lake in the teeth of all the usual arguments about
increasing economic prosperity etc (‘economic’ being
defined in exclusively monetary terms, of course).
Warne has dug out a delicious quote: as late as 1971
prime minister Keith Holyoake was telling the people,
‘If you do not know why we do a certain thing, just
rely on our judgment.’

In these 14 pages of New Zealand Geographic you will
find the whole history of the Manapouri debate
concisely and memorably retold. But it’s not just a
useful source of information (the Southland Progress
League!): from first word to final full stop it’s a
beautifully composed piece of journalism, in which the
historical research is seamlessly interwoven with fresh
interviews and the writer’s own personal impressions
of a recent trip to the area. Having written hundreds of
magazine features myself, I think I know an
outstanding example of the craft when I see it—and this
is one. Kennedy Warne, these days a freelance, was the
founding editor of New Zealand Geographic: there’s a
handsome tribute to him from current editor James
Frankham at the back of this same issue. It closes with
something that still inspires Warne—the words on the
motto of an old newspaper he once came across:

For the cause that lacks assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance
And the good that we can do.

You could do worse than pin that to your wall, along
with this, from Ogden Nash:

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long.


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Poneke said...

the motto of an old newspaper he once came across

That is actually the motto of the Auckland Star in its heyday.

It was written by a 19th Century British journalist, George Linnaeus Banks. The full text is:

I live for those who love me, for those who know me true;

for the heaven that smiles above me and awaits my spirit too.

For the cause that lacks assistance, for the wrong that needs resistance, for the future in the distance, and the good that I can do.