100% Pure Ideology: Fact-free media coverage of the Mike Joy ruckus

So an anonymous leader writer at the New Zealand Herald has scolded freshwater ecologist Mike Joy for daring to challenge Tourism NZ’s “100% Pure” marketing campaign. Essentially, Joy told reporters there were two New Zealands: “There is the picture-postcard world, and then there is the reality.”

It’s hard to say whether the author’s even read Joy’s comments in context, since they seem like an understatement alongside the unflinching data in that same story: more than half of our recreational swimming spots are now hazardous to human health, our greenhouse gas emissions have increased per capita by nearly a quarter since the 1990 Kyoto protocols (which our government has now reneged on as a serious commitment), our score on the Yale University Environmental Performance Index has plummeted from first to fourteenth in just four years.

But none of this makes it into the Herald‘s tutting. Extraordinarily, it instead takes Joy – not, you know, the marketing board – to task for using the manipulative language of advertising. But wait, there’s more:

Dr Joy’s comments to the New York Times about this country’s environmental record also come at an unfortunate time. Sir Peter Jackson’s movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premieres around the world this week. The latest Tourism NZ campaign has been timed to take advantage of the publicity associated with it. Dr Joy’s contradictory remarks could deter some big-spending American tourists from coming here.

Academics have a right and responsibility to comment publicly on issues of importance to the community without fear or favour. Their expert knowledge makes them an important part of any public discussion. But their comments must be appropriate.

The NZ Association of Scientists’ response speaks for itself.

This kind of moderating or gatekeeping tone often seems to come with a complete absence of relevant factual information (see also almost any editorial in any paper ever about austerity-related civil unrest or Israeli war crimes). But it’s not just the editorial I want to talk about — it’s Stuff’s counter-counter-point with Joy too. Now, I’ve never met Talia Shadwell and I’m not having a go: good on her for following up an important story and conforming to all the usual expectations of balance. But again, there’s a complete dearth of any of the actual statistics that Joy and others cite, the stuff that gives readers any real information beyond A Guy Said A Thing.

It took me literally fifteen seconds to find NZ’s rankings in the Yale University Environmental performance Index, and what we get there is a very mixed picture: our water filtration and treatment for human consumption is the best in the world, but meanwhile our actual waterways – the things those “big-spending American tourists” come to see – are so polluted we’re knocked all the way back to 43rd. And it’s getting worse, with our ‘pilot trend results’ (basically whether we’re improving or worsening) dropping by nearly 30 points over the last decade.

Likewise with our air: top of the class for day-to-day living (largely a function of our low population density) but actually 70th when it comes to the effect on the environment as a whole. Our attempts to combat climate change are so half-hearted we’re at 66th. And far from “green”, our intensive forestry industry puts us at 98th.

So Joy has much more than “half a point” when he insists on acknowledgement and action on our environmental health record as opposed to simply beefing up the marketing budget. It says a lot about the state of the debate when the only statistic that figures is a meaningless tautology literally dreamed up by an advertising agency: 100% Pure Ideology.

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