DairyNZ recently claimed that a Greenpeace advert, on the impacts of industrial dairying on our waterways, was inflammatory and provocative. The advert argues that the New Zealand government allows the dairy industry to make our rivers unswimmable and undrinkable. In a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which wasn’t upheld, DairyNZ contended that Greenpeace acted inappropriately and misled the public. Even if Greenpeace were stretching the truth, the outcome from another set of recent exchanges about an environmental issue would suggest that the dairy industry can probably relax.
Since 2012, the government has been making annual ‘block offers’ to oil and gas companies. A ‘block offer’ is an area of land and/or sea designated by the government as a possible area of exploration for oil and gas reserves. Companies bid to be granted permits to ‘explore’ in sections of the block. Block Offer 2014 included parts of a Marine Mammal Sanctuary which shelter the endangered Maui’s dolphin.
Environmental groups argued that the government was behaving recklessly, essentially sacrificing an endangered creature to help prop up the fossil fuel industry in making the block offer. Government figures responded by saying that there had been no sightings of the Maui’s dolphins in the area. Indeed, then Conservation Minister Nick Smith said: “show me the Maui”. Claiming that there had not been one incident between a dolphin and the oil and gas industry in 40 years, he also argued that banning oil and gas activities in the area would cost 5000 jobs and three billion dollars. Some agreed with him. One editor, for example, said that in an ideal world, oil exploration wouldn’t happen near marine sanctuaries, but this wasn’t an ideal world and New Zealanders needed jobs. Smith also actively discredited environmental groups, calling them out for engaging in “extreme green lunacy”, that risked putting the country in “real trouble“. Then Prime Minister John Key also chipped in, saying that complaints about Block Offer 2014 were “a load of mumbo jumbo”. The denials, appeals and discredits indicated that the government was positively nervous about the public attention that might be roused.
Unfortunately (for the government), people were already signing petitions, participating in protest marches and commenting on social media sites. One protest in Tauranga was attended by more than 300 people, far more than the 80-strong crowd who had participated in a protest on child abuse not long before. Experts were also scratching their heads with disbelief that the government appeared to be ignoring scientific evidence that the dolphins were at risk. Indeed, the reaction resembled what social scientists would call a ‘good moral panic’ (Cohen, 2002; Hier, 2016). In a regular ‘bad’ moral panic, the public reacts to a trivial issue (one that offends the moral order) in a way that is understood to be ‘out of proportion’ to any actual threat while in a ‘good’ moral panic the reaction is understood to be warranted, and may even be required in order to undo or prevent a harm (Hier, 2016).
The prevention of harm is seemingly what resulted from the reaction in this case. Government figures appeared to backtrack from their denials as the public response to the threat to the dolphins gathered momentum. Nick Smith admitted that he might be mistaken about there being no sightings of the dolphins. He said: “I’m checking the maps… If I’m wrong, I’m happy to apologize”. Then Minister of Energy and Resources Simon Bridges, another active denier and discreditor of the environmental groups’ claims, said that he deeply cared about the environment, “like all New Zealanders”. And, in the end, no permits were granted for oil and gas exploration in the Marine Mammal Sanctuary that had been opened up in Block Offer 2014. The efforts of the public had been rewarded, and environmental groups had accomplished what they set out to do. But what the dairy industry can take comfort from is that the outcome in this case didn’t last for long. The sanctuary is once again open for oil and gas exploration in Block Offer 2016.
The government probably refrained from granting permits in Block Offer 2014 to settle the public mood, rather than mitigate the potential harm to Maui’s dolphins from practices of oil and gas exploration. So, the dairy industry should not be alarmed about any ensuing action that might restrict their activities, as it is likely that this will be temporary, and just enough to dampen down any concerns. However, Greenpeace, and anyone who cares about water, should stay alert.
Sarah Wright is a Lecturer in the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.
Cohen, S. (2002). Folk devils and moral panics. 3rd Edition. New York, Paladin.
Hier, S. (2016). Good moral panics? Normative ambivalence, social reaction, and coexisting responsibilities in everyday life. Current Sociology. DOI: 10.1177/0011392116655463