Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reflections on nine months in New Zealand

Noah P. Snyder
Director, Environmental Studies Program
Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Originally published in the BCEEAN Newsletter.

I spent the last academic year on sabbatical at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Growing up in a college town (Ithaca, New York) I always viewed sabbaticals abroad as one of the perks of being a professor. My faculty-brat friends would come back from a summer, semester or year in another country with new stories and new perspectives. As my first opportunity to take a sabbatical approached, my wife and I made plans to move our family (we have two young sons) overseas. We had spent our honeymoon in New Zealand in 2004, and very much enjoyed that landscape and culture. In 2010, I was offered a visiting fellowship in the Geological Sciences Department of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, and we made our plans to go. In this article, I reflect on my experiences abroad and how these influence my vision for BC’s Environmental Studies Program going forward.

Two 2011 natural disasters nearly derailed our plans to go to NZ. The first and most important was the Christchurch earthquake in February. This event essentially destroyed the downtown of the South Island’s largest city, which was built in the 19th century on weak wetland soil prone to liquefaction during shaking. Similar to California, New Zealand is a tectonically active place and the city had survived several previous earthquakes, including a larger but more distant one in 2010. The second event was Hurricane Irene, which grounded all flights, including ours, out of the U.S. East Coast in late August. For us, both events proved to be nuisances, but for many others they were far more devastating.

With rescheduling after the storm, it took us five flights and 37 hours to get from New York to Christchurch. We were picked up at the airport on a sunny, cold early Southern Hemisphere spring morning by one of my colleagues. Upon landing, we did not know what the city would look like. As we drove in from the west, the geologist showed us the damage there, mostly brick walls and chimneys that had been knocked down by the shaking. He explained that the far greater damage was on the eastern side of the city, where the liquefaction and landslides had occurred. There buildings, roads and other infrastructure (water, sewage and power systems) were all destroyed. The area around the university, where we lived for the whole nine months, was much less affected. While awake in the middle of our first jetlagged night, my wife and sons felt our first of many aftershocks.

Although local nerves are frayed by the aftershocks and by the uncertainty regarding the future of homes and neighborhoods, the impression I got was that the recovery process was remarkably functional and well managed. NZ has a strong government that provides excellent social services, and the citizens largely lack the anti-government culture that pervades the United States. Within two months after the February quake, the government was circulating recovery plans for public comment. This stands in remarkable contrast to the best recent analogy in the United States, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where the failure of government to respond adequately to an environmental challenge was such a major part of the story. I got a first-hand perspective on how scientists play an important role in educating the public during an environmental crisis because I was housed in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Beyond the earthquakes, New Zealand is an excellent place to consider the relationship of humans to the land. Similar to the rural western United States, the economy of New Zealand revolves around land-based industries like agriculture (particularly dairy farming for export), mining, forestry and tourism. The first three sectors often clash with the fourth, and its “100% Pure” international advertising campaign. NZ tourism is based on the beautiful landscapes seen in the Lord of the Rings films. The country manages a world-class network of national parks with outstanding tourist infrastructure (from well-maintained trails to organized adventure activities) at each one. On the other hand, land use strongly influences many places on both islands, with water-quality problems downstream of dairy farms, steeplands eroding rapidly due to overgrazing and poor forestry practices, and invasive species problems. For instance, iconic native birds like kiwis are being driven close to extinction by mammals introduced by Maori and European settlers over the past 800 years.

These land-use tensions are very much part of NZ life. Living on two islands in the southwestern Pacific encourages the citizens to be aware of the sustainability of their lifestyles. The South Island powers its electrical grid almost entirely using dams, and overall 75% of NZ’s power comes from renewable sources. The combination of a relatively modest human population, mild climate (not much need for air conditioning) and lots of rain in the mountains mean that they can do this and still have many free-flowing rivers. Nonetheless, rising demand and the need for clean energy (NZ has a greenhouse gas trading scheme) means the pressure to build more dams is a constant part of the civic conversation. I saw an excellent talk given by a government-agency geologist about the hard choices NZ will need to make in the future: balancing sizeable coal reserves, the possibility of natural gas exploration using hydrofracturing, new offshore oil production, new dams and wind farms, and the need to be good global citizens in the face of rising levels of greenhouse gases.

Of course, this conversation has little analog in US, where both presidential candidates are ignoring climate change (even after the hottest month on record in the lower 48!). This year the Environmental Studies Program will explore energy sustainability. This fall, I will teach a class required for all Environmental Studies minors in the classes of 2015 and beyond called “The Human Footprint” where we study population growth and the demand for energy and agriculture. I am also working with BCEEAN and other faculty to organize a symposium on energy that is part of BC’s 150th anniversary celebrations. And on October 11, we are showing a new film called Switch (http://www.switchenergyproject.com/) that presents an objective view of the possibilities for shifting to a lower-carbon energy future in the US. The goal of the documentary is to move toward the kind of balanced, mature discussion that I saw in NZ.

More broadly, I return to BC energized to build new opportunities for scholarship in environment and sustainability. This year I plan to propose the creation of a new interdisciplinary major in Environmental Studies. Several newly hired professors and the resulting expanded course opportunities give us the chance to build a substantial and rigorous program for students. I am also looking forward to working with faculty, staff, students and the Office of Sustainability to better link exciting new directions in campus sustainability and our undergraduate curriculum. Finally, a university-wide conversation has begun on building a Center for the Environment at BC to house interdisciplinary graduate programs and research collaborations.

A footbridge across the Avon River in downtown Christchurch, damaged by earthquake shaking in February 2011 (photograph by Noah Snyder, November 2011).

Landslide damage in a coastal neighborhood of Christchurch. The line of containers at the base of the cliff protects a roadway from additional falling debris (photograph by Noah Snyder, March 2012).

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