Conservation Comment: Keeping it real is vital policy

By Nelson Lebo

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No cost: Nelson Lebo and the Community Resilience Whanganui Curtain Bank, which has been hugely successful.
No cost: Nelson Lebo and the Community Resilience Whanganui Curtain Bank, which has been hugely successful.

I still remember the day a quarter-century ago when first I heard those words: "Let's not let the truth get in the way of a good story."

I thought he was joking when, in fact, he was in marketing. His plan for our organisation was to tell a story about sustainability that sounded good but had little basis in fact.

I still believe truth and accuracy matter, but it's clear they're under greater threat now than in the early '90s. We inhabit a world of fake news, alternative facts and social media echo chambers.

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Social science researchers have long known people are more likely to believe research that reinforces their existing world-view.

Lately it seems this psychological preference has extended to all manner of ideas and opinions with no basis in research at all. Joe Bloggs can make something up, share it across the internet and it will be adopted as fact by people who use it to bolster their own opinions.

We're in an age when it's ok for someone with little or no training to act as though their opinion is as valid as that of a trained professional. Forget climate change and wealth inequality, the war on truth is the greatest threat to humanity.

To make good decisions, people need good information. Bad information clouds the issues, confuses people, and often results in misallocation of limited funds.

From my observations of Whanganui, there's no correlation between a programme's funding and its efficacy. In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship. A recent Chronicle headline on Whanganui's anti-smoking programme comes to mind: "Spent: $1.7m. Progress: 0".

This is especially true of environmental and sustainability projects, where the heaviest-funded ones have been the greatest failures, while some unfunded ones experience spectacular success.

The Community Resilience Whanganui Curtain Bank is a recent example of a hugely successful project without a budget. It joins the Whanganui Permaculture Weekend at the top of the table.

On the other hand, two highly funded community gardens were complete failures, but not long afterwards the council approved more funding for community gardens, throwing good money after bad. About the same time, the council's community and culture committee turned down a programme that had received rave reviews from participants. In both cases the decisions were based on bad information.

I don't know how it became my job to be a watchdog for the environmental movement, but it must have something to do with a distressing amount of false information, plagiarism and exaggerated claims in our local print media. I believe the arguments for environmental protection and eco-design speak for themselves; there's no need to "enhance" the stories, as this only weakens the movement overall.

Noted environmentalist Edward Abbey insisted: "Fidelity to fact leads eventually to the poetry of truth." Other people call it "keepin' it real". In that spirit, please consider:

So-called "biodegradable" or "compostable" plastics often cause more problems than they solve. Most are impossible to process in NZ and should be avoided.

Solar electricity is not cost-effective for most NZ households and has a larger carbon footprint than wind or hydro-power.

Passive solar home design is great. Those who say otherwise should be questioned on their motives.

Designing and building a cosy, energy-efficient home is not difficult or expensive and does not require certification.

To be continued...

Dr Nelson Lebo is an eco-design consultant specialising in high-performance housing and holistic land management.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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