SAC # 69

Nature's Counter-Attack: War and New Zealand's Environmental History



TIME | 29 July 2010, 4pm onwards

LOCATION | Seminar Room, Centre for Innovation, 87 St. David St.

SPEAKER | Professor Tom Brooking


New Zealand has had five major experiences of war, each producing significant impacts upon the environment, while the distant Korean and Vietnam wars produced 2-4-5-T which also left its mark. The so called musket wars of the 1820s not only moved Maori iwi (tribes) around the country but led to the taking of many more slaves as some Iwi used their temporary military dominance to develop large scale crop farming. 

The New Zealand Wars, which flared between 1844-45 and 1860-1872, undermined the progress of Maori crop and stock farming as successive European governments confiscated, or bought the best land for farming at very modest cost. After these wars white settlers moved into heavily forested areas, removed trees and drained swamps to make way for pasture. The Boer War of 1899-1902 saw a small shift away from pastoral farming to raising grain, especially oats as horse breeding flourished briefly.

The First World War between 1914 and 1918 produced much greater environmental impacts than the earlier musket (1820s) wars between the tribes, or the New Zealand Wars from 1844-1872 between British troops and Maori allies against other tribes. because New Zealand won access to phosphate on the formerly German owned Nauru and Ocean islands. Without this fertiliser New Zealand’s largely infertile and exhausted soils would not have been able to support spectacular increases in production. War also encouraged more careful planning and a much more sustained application of science to increase productivity and efficiency. The British Government helped establish the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in an endeavour to improve its food supply in time of war while the New Zealand Government established Massey Agricultural College, upgraded Lincoln AgriculturalCollege and established several other research institutes to take advantage of Britain’s post war needs. New Zealand agriculture reached its environmental limits in the process and much reversion of farmland occurred as the Great Depression hit along with erosion and flooding problems in the 1930s. 

The Second World War though probably produced the greatest environmental impact because it provided the technology to fertilise the rugged hill country via aerial topdressing. So the flood gates of development opened as New Zealand farmers attacked regenerating bush with renewed energy and increased stock numbers spectacularly as they carried through the so called ‘third grasslands revolution’. The new technologies and chemicals such as the insecticide DDT, which made farming less labour intensive and much more productive, apparently quelled nature’s counter attacks that occurred during both the Depression and War. Without the War New Zealand’s agricultural recovery would have been slower and the environment would have had longer to make its counter attack. Agricultural bureaucrats and scientists determined to win the ‘battle’ against nature in the form of increasing erosion, flooding, droughts, leached soils and returning native forest, gained impetus and influence as new opportunities opened up and the Korean war inflated commodity prices down to the 1960s.

About the Speaker

Professor Tom Brooking specialises in New Zealand and comparative rural and environmental history and has published six books and numerous book chapters, essays and articles. His last major book was Lands for the People? The Highland Clearances and the Colonisation of New Zealand: A Biography of John McKenzie. He has since published two edited volumes: Environmental Histories of New Zealand, OUP, 2002 and The Heather and the Fern: Scottish Migration & New Zealand Settlement, University of Otago Press, 2003.

Currently Tom is working on Seeds of Empire: The Environmental Transformation of New Zealand, to be published by I.B.Tauris (London) in 2009; a Biography of Richard John Seddon, New Zealand's longest serving Prime Minister, tentatively titled 'The People's Servant' to be published by Penguin, Christmas 2009; and a Marsden funded project on Scottish migration to New Zealand which involved the supervision of 2 PhDs and should appear in 2011 in book form.


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