I was interested to read recently that my mate, Raf Manji, has been chosen to be the new leader of The Opportunities Party. The Opportunities Party is trying its hardest to shake the image that it is a party that cares, above all, about killing cats. Founded by Gareth Morgan, a very smart individual who, as is often the case with people of his intellect, doesn’t have a great grasp on diplomacy or tact. TOP spent its first years trying to prove to the electorate that it didn’t just stand for the destruction of the New Zealand feline population.

In fact, TOP has plenty of policies. And all of these policies are what the party is at pains to explain to anyone who will listen: evidence based. TOP policies are created after the careful and detailed analysis of the situation, the options and potential downstream effects of policies. All of which would make total sense if it weren’t for the fact that the electorate is intellectually lazy, rather binary and lacks the attention span to consider anything that goes beyond a 140-character Tweet.

I was thinking of Raf lately after hearing of a new study about the deleterious environmental impacts of diary farming. The study, headed by noted academic and environmentalist Mike Joy, determined that in my home region of Canterbury it takes 11,000 litres of water to mitigate the negative environmental impacts created from producing a single solitary litre of milk. Since we don’t have the rainfall to dilute the copious quantities of nitrates leaching into the aquifers, our ground water is nitrate rich. To repurpose the words of one of our most eloquent political figures, in Canterbury, one can truly smell the nitrogen on ones breath.

I was thinking about the dairy intensification issue and wondering how we’d got to this place. It seems to me that the real barrier to finding solutions to the problems we face isn’t one of intent, but rather one of education. In other words, the issues are seen through a very narrow perspective that lacks either nuance, or an appreciation for the counter-factual. The reason we’re up nitrate creek without a paddle, is that people want a singular answer but don’t want to accept that in all things there is nuance.

From the side of economics the issue is simple: dairy is our biggest export earner and hence increased dairy means that we can afford to live well as a country. A simple, albeit simplistic, assessment that can’t help but lead one to the conclusion that intensifying dairying makes total sense.

From the environmental side the issue is also very simple: the intensification of dairying has resulted in a huge degradation of the quality of our drinking water. What this means, especially in Canterbury, is that people are drinking water that has been proven to increase the rate of colorectal cancers. Through this lens, more dairying is bad.

But problems, and their attendant solutions, are rarely simple. The world is complex and, even if it can’t be easily captured in a 10 second soundbite, nuance is important.

Flipping back to the economic view, we suddenly have a situation where more and more people are falling ill with cancers. Those cancers demand more and more expensive treatment options and so, all of a sudden, the health system develops a voracious appetite for cash. Perhaps the positive impacts of dairying (more GDP) are outweighed by the economic impacts of its less palatable impacts.

Hang on a minute. We were talking the environment here. All of the initiatives attempting to make us Predator Free by 2050 are only possible in an economy that can afford it. Research around ways to fight Kauri dieback won’t happen if we don’t earn foreign currency.

If your head is starting to spin at this point, I suspect you’re not alone. Every issue we face as a country has nuance and conflicting drivers and impacts. From making good on Te Tiriti to providing a good social welfare system. From saving our endangered species to providing a great education system for our Tamariki. The world is, indeed, complicated and every decision that our politicians make for us should be based on the careful balancing of a multitude of issues.

But in the current climate, they can’t be. New Zealand is, sadly, following down the path of other nations and becoming more polarized. Our politicians richly reward the electorate’s call for simple answers that solve problems articulated in artificially binary ways. Of course it has always been thus, but it is increasingly so. Coupled with an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment and you have a recipe for societal pain.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He loves dairy products but wishes Canterbury’s water was drinkable. 


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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