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Blog by Dave McArthur 23 September 2007


The Environment Court’s rejection of the proposal to construct an eco-industrial complex on Te Raekaihau Point, Wellington, presents New Zealand with a wonderful opportunity to create a truly outstanding climate education resource. 

The proposed Aquarium of New Zealand (as it was called when the proposal was being sold to the business sector) or the Wellington Marine Education Centre (as it was called when being sold to caring mums and dads who aspire that their children have a rounded education) was the acid test of our commitment to our democratic, educational, carbon and conservation ideals. That commitment is revealed as profoundly corrupted.

Now the proponents of the Te Raekaihau Point proposal are helpless, caught up in a web of lies and deceits of their own creation. 

For a start they have gone to extraordinary lengths to convince the public that their extensive research has proven beyond doubt that Te Raekaihau Point is the only possible site on the Wellington harbour and coastline for a marine education centre. They have painted themselves into a corner or, if you like, out onto a rocky point on the Cook Strait where their dreams risk being washed away in the next storm.

This is very unfortunate because the fact is there are alternative sites and some of these people have extraordinary talents for communicating the wonder of our seashore life.

Their argument that the Wellington City Council had already allowed the headland to be destroyed by human activity was flawed too. The underlying formation is intact, as historic photos show. Left alone it would soon revert to its natural state.

Proponents argued a marine education centre is needed to protect South Coast rock pool life from being destroyed by the activities of thousands of school children trooping through them - the centre would contain learning activities that enabled students to enjoy controlled interaction with seashore life. This much is correct. However this rationale also makes a complete lie of their argument that the centre has to be out on the headland amid the rock pools so children can experience coast-life in the wild.

All their publicity supporting their proposal portrays scenes of a building diminished in scale in the landscape surrounded by one or two buses and a couple of cars. The reality is the surrounding landscape would have to be covered with a small sea of cars in order to sustain the visitor numbers projected in the fine detail of the proposal. This is a stinging indictment on the integrity and ability of the proponents as teachers. How on earth could they portray the complex dynamics of our air-ocean systems if they could not even convey the simple reality of the carpark?

Clearly they did not understand the global issues surrounding humans’ use of carbon. The siting and other vital aspects of the proposal promoted the needless and prolific use of cars and fleets of jets. Proponents derided suggestions that humanity’s access to cheap oil and Gas reserves will become restricted. They dismissed as ludicrous predictions global oil prices would soon exceed $US50 a barrel and that this would have major negative impacts in the form of rising inflation and debt and the accompanying depletion of the middle class. 

As an aside, they are in plentiful company in this denial. Our current credit system has been rapidly expanded this last decade on the basis that oil and Gas are cheap and everlasting resources. Both beliefs are false and economies based on this premise are now imploding in inflation and with what is euphemistically being called a “credit squeeze”. Any proposed education centre, if it is to be worthy of its name, should factor this into its design and be designed to serve a debt-ridden NZ population with few travel options.

Also a sustainable education centre needs to teach about our carbon potential and, in particular, how our current abuse of that carbon potential puts us all at significant risk. For instance, it has to communicate how human uses of carbon are acidifying our oceans. To quote Wiki:

Although the natural absorption of CO2 by the world's oceans helps mitigate the climatic effects of anthropogenic emissions of CO2, it is believed that the resulting decrease in pH will have negative consequences, primarily for oceanic calcifying organisms. These use the calcite or aragonite polymorphs of calcium carbonate to construct cell coverings or skeletons. Calcifiers span the food chain from autotrophs to heterotrophs and include organisms such as coccolithophores, corals, foraminifera, echinoderms, crustaceans and molluscs.

The complex proposed for Te Raekaihau Point could not possibly teach about these risks to our oceans or to the atmospheric balances that sustain us. To do so its teachings would severely undermine the business case on which the institution is based. 

More seriously the institution would have had to teach our children the pathological lesson. “Don’t do what we do, it’s dangerous. Just do as we say.” 

You see, if it were true to its education objectives the institute would communicate the great ocean-air system of planet Earth in all its wondrous complexity and vitality. It would communicate how carbon is cycled through this system and teach about the exquisite balances that enable life, as we know it on Earth. It would then have to condemn its own role in this system and explain to the world that it is a living example of human’s abuse of our carbon potential. It failed the acid test!

The Wellington City Council also has failed the acid test – the acid test of its commitment to democracy, to caring for the unique coastal headlands within its borders and to our children. 

It should have designated Te Raekaihau Point reserve status decades ago. 

It showed gross disregard for our need to conserve carbon resources and balances. 

It undermined both democracy and the Environment protection processes by $200,000 towards the legal costs of those supporting the proposal. Those who rightfully questioned the proposal now have to find $114,000 out of their own pockets to pay for the legal costs they incurred appealing to the Environment Court as well as pay through their rates for the legal expenses of those who promoted this ill-conceived proposal. 

What is particularly sick about this is many of those caring folk exist on incomes that are a fraction of the personal incomes of City Councillors and proponents of the eco-industrial complex.

The Aquarium of New Zealand was promoted as a national icon and these caring Wellington citizens saved our country from international embarrassment. 

They saved Wellington city millions of dollars from having to prop up a failing venture as the tourist base the proposal is based on evaporates with the end of cheap oil and Gas. 

They highlighted the lack of conservation of the city’s foreshore.

They showed how corrupt institutions can undermine the Environment Court. 

They donated many thousands of hours of their time to protecting us all and for all this they are being doubly punished. 

Here is a list of the councillors who voted for this corrupt allocation of city funds: Mayor Prendergast, Councillors, Ahipene-Mercer, Armstrong,
Cook, Foster, Gill, McKinnon, Morrison, Ritchie, Shaw, Wade-Brown and
Those voting against it were:

Councillors Goulden, Pepperell and Ruben.

Their votes are an acid test that reveals a failure that is symptomatic of a far deeper malaise in the council. Serious questions must be asked of the suitability of those concerned to lead the city. Each of those Councillors who voted for this $200,000 should be made publicly accountable for their decisions in next month’s elections. A council must be voted in that displays knowledge and concern for the wider issues and that has a vision beyond the Cheap Oil-Gas Era.

Wellington citizens should only vote for those candidates who, for instance, express a commitment to democracy and are prepared to vote funding to cover the $114,000 incurred in legal expense incurred by opponents of the proposal. That is the first step that must be taken to restore democracy to the city and re-establish the integrity of environment conservation processes.

The next step for the refreshed Wellington City Council is to embrace the wonderful opportunity that this Environment Court decision has delivered to the world. 

The Te Raekaihau proposal has deeply divided many of the city’s south coast communities, including schools, political parties, residents associations and other such groups. Originally many good folk were sold the proposal by appeals to their civic instincts and portraying the proposal as a wonderful way of teaching our children to care for their coastal environment. 

Then as they discovered the grubby commercial reality behind the proposal and saw through the deceits propagated by its proponents and our bigoted local media then many good folk in the region have become very dismayed and disillusioned about education. They now feel that their good hearts were exploited. 

Wellington would now be well on the way to making a major contribution to world peace and harmony if all the passion generated had been harnessed to serve a sustainable proposal for an education centre. 

The city enjoys brilliant air and ocean resources. We are home to world-leading researchers in these fields and in digital graphics. We have citizens passionate and knowledgeable about how we can communicate and conserve vital environmental balances. I include myself among them. Now we have the opportunity to release the city’s passion and potential to build a first-class education centre teaching the world not just about seashore life but the entire ocean- air dynamic. 

The reported $NZ2 million that had been committed to blasting the reef and installing a high-risk, large, glass “kelp forest” viewing wall can now be invested in state of the art communication, such as webcam systems, high quality broadband and inspiring graphical displays of how the great ocean-air systems work and how carbon, oxygen, thermal energy etc cycle through our world.

The centre will also allow our children to view our shore life close up and the experience should allow them to know the powerful smell, of brine, to witness the mass of bubbling pipes, wiring and meters, whirring pumps and fans and all the other technology required to sustain the sea-life in their tanks. This way they are reminded of the work the planet constantly does in maintaining our oceans as living environments. And our children should see how fish are killed, butchered and made ready for food and see how our sewers and stormwater system work.

It will not be an insulated, armchair, virtual experience as was proposed for Te Raekaihau Point. And the money saved on coffee making machines and fancy restaurants can also be diverted into the state of the art displays mentioned. The new vision will extend far beyond the rocky seashore to include the total surface dynamics of our planet. And this is seen and filmed in the great ocean tides and the Roaring Forties pouring through the Cook Strait daily and the rawness of the landscape new-thrust out of oceans by seismic activities. With this Court decision Te Raekaihau Point now remains a classic example of these forces in action, a place we can learn from.

The Environment Court also presents us with a great opportunity to now ensure the new education centre is future proofed by being sited on our electric mass transit system. This will ensure that New Zealanders can afford to travel to the centre when car and jet travel are far beyond the means of the average person. It will also ensure the centre is a living example of sustainable practice that protects the balances of the oceans.

The Wellington City Council already owns land at the Hungerford Road terminus of the city’s electric mass transit system. As you can see from the photos on my website, other cities would consider themselves blessed to have such an extraordinary resource available – on mass transit yet isolated, open to the ocean yet protected from great storm surges, embraced by hills yet providing intimate access to heights where the student can truly feel they are at the spot where the earth, the sky and the oceans all meet.

Not on my website is my response to a City Councillor who queried my suggestion that siting a building two city blocks from mass transit can mean the building demands three times as many resources to serve it compared to what it consumes directly in its life time. My calculation indicated that siting the complex on Te Raekaihau Point instead of on the electric mass transit system would result in the use of over 6 million extra kWhs of resources annually compared to the mere 60-100 thousand kWhs the building might use in lighting, heating, motors etc each year.

And those who become desperate for a coffee hit while visiting the centre need only jump on a trolley bus if they are not capable of making the ten-minute stroll around the bay to the coffee houses on Lyall Bay.

The Environment Court has opened all these possibilities for us. Several things are clear:

Humanity needs new insights so that we use our carbon potential to enhance our lives, not court destruction as we do now.

Wellington City has on its small Miramar peninsula all the potential required to provide humanity with visions of wonders of the great air-ocean system that sustains us.

Most of our billions of humans will never fly in jets or even be able to visit an ocean and yet their activities also impact on marine life. It is up to cities like Wellington with its unique resources to bring the water-air oceans to life for them.

Some of the most passionate of these proponents will one day thank those who opposed their proposal. They will look back and regard the Environment Court decision as an act that saved them from great anguish as their dream on Te Raekaihau Point became riddled with debt, turned to an education nightmare and they became subject to uncaring business people who took control of their lives and ruthlessly exploited their talents, before disposing of their dispirited carcases into the oceans and converting the complex into an amusement parlour. 

Many of the proponents of the Te Raekaihau proposal, possibly including a couple of the City Councillors, have many of the vital skills required to make our potential become a sustaining reality in the form of a world-inspiring ocean-air education centre.

Wellington has the passion. Wellington has the potential. Let us let this dream education resource happen.

And the cartoon strip that accompanies this blog? It was drawn four years ago and in it I send this character known as Bonus Joules off on a search to find the nature of Energy. Bonus Joules has just discovered a permanent travelling companion exists – Junk Joules who represents all that is wasteful in our use of our precious resources. It is a coincidence that this blog on the Aquarium of New Zealand is with this particular panel. However it is profoundly relevant. I have sat at meetings containing the cream of our Environmental Educators and listened as they uncritically applauded news that StageCoach and the Wellington International Airport authority were the dominant sponsors of the Te Raekaihau proposal.

There was an even more enthusiastic buzz of excitement and amazement among our educators when it was outlined how StageCoach planned to run a specially painted bus in a loop that connected the Airports new Megastore development to Te Raekaihau Point. This would enable parents to send their children off for “education” and free them to concentrate on shopping. 

The educators were completely oblivious of how this sponsorship was active Greenwash and how it was being leveraged against to obscure awareness of the carbon emissions of these corporations. As such they were powerful and unwitting agents of the Greenwash.

It was experiences like this that led me to develop the 5-step analysis of the impact of education resources

  • Planning and Construction,
  • Maintenance and Disposal,
  • Transport demands
  • “Hidden curriculum” in design
  • Leverage off sponsorship

  and ultimately to the Sustainability Principle of Energy.

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