Of all developed countries, New Zealand is one of the most dependent on its natural environment for earning its living; and we have lived well, thanks to the bounty our ancestors discovered here some 700 years ago.

Ours was the last large land mass humans settled. We remain a small population spread thinly across two spacious islands and many small ones. Ranked by people, we are the world’s 124th-largest country. Ranked by land we’re 75th.

Where we stand in the world matters hugely to us. Our location creates our cornucopia, defines us, challenges us and gives us unrivalled opportunities. But our current economic model is hitting its limits. It is generating escalating environmental, social and cultural strains. It will not provide well for us over the next seven years, let alone 70 or 700.

This is our paradox of poverty amid plenty. Bar oil producers, we have per capita the highest stock of natural capital in the world, and ours is a world of ever-scarcer resources. Yet we’re struggling.

New Zealand needs very different strategies to thrive. How can we achieve global scale in a few fields? Create sophisticated, high-value products and services through science and other intellectual and cultural pursuits? Connect and collaborate intimately with communities of like-minded people around the world? Above all, how can we be true to who we are, what we are and where we are as a nation?

We can see the answers from 10,000 kilometres up in space. The tectonic plates carve a giant Z across the Western Pacific from the equator to near Antarctica. In the middle is 5.8 million square kilometres of ocean, an area equivalent to three-quarters of the land mass of Australia. Entrusted to New Zealand under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea, it is the fifth largest national oceanic resource in the world. It is 22 times the land area of New Zealand. It is so big, we almost catch up with Australia, with 28 times the New Zealand land mass. But Australia’s oceanic resource is only 1.4 times that of New Zealand.

This is a monumental responsibility. All oceans are precious for the life they hold and their influence on the planet’s ecosystem. New Zealand’s oceanic resource is home to 14% of the world’s marine species; of those more than 60% are unique, the second highest level of endemism in the world after Antarctic waters.

These life forms are essential to the healthy functioning of the oceans but also for the help they might be to humankind. As Professor Chris Battershill, who leads the coastal and marine ecosystem work at the University of Waikato’s Environmental Research Institute points out, of 31 marine leads for anti-cancer drugs, New Zealand has contributed three. One is a breast cancer drug in pre-clinical development from a local sea sponge.
We know astonishingly little about the oceans for which we are responsible. We’ve studied less than 6% of our seabed so far, Dr Michael McGinnis of Victoria University estimates.

So far people around the world have turned to the oceans only for fish and some offshore oil and gas. But as a rising human population puts ever more demands on dwindling terrestrial sources of food and minerals, people will seek to massively exploit the oceans.

Worse, climate change is already creating an even bigger threat to oceans. Use of fossil fuels is pushing up carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, thereby raising temperatures. Oceans are absorbing a disproportionately large share of the heat and atmospheric carbon, causing warmer and more acidic water in surface layers. These changes are already causing damage to many coral reefs, which are by far the most intensive and biodiverse ecosystems in the oceans.

Most frightening of all, no scientist knows how to reverse these profound impacts, notes Sir Jonathon Porritt, a world leader on sustainability. In his latest book, The World We Made: Alex McKay’s story from 2050 (Phaidon, 2013), Porritt extrapolates from existing new and better technologies, and economic and social trends already apparent to describe how humankind solved many, but not all, of the increasingly intense climate and other sustainability challenges impacting us now and deepening fast. But ocean acidification and heating are by far the two most sinister for which Sir Jonathon sees no solution.

On a more encouraging note, he believes humankind will make some progress on improving the health of ecosystems, though still falling short of substantial recovery and restoration. Areas of high biodiversity will be crucial to these processes. He identifies the Pacific Islands as one of the largest biodiverse regions in the world.

So let’s make this vast area and its peoples a zone of hope across the Pacific’s tectonic Z from the Solomon Islands east to Samoa and south to Antarctica. This embraces some of the most precious but threatened places on the planet, such as islands that will be made uninhabitable by rising sea levels and Antarctica where nations might try to carve out sovereign territory and exploit the land and sea once the continent’s international treaty becomes open to renegotiation and modification in 2041.

We and our neighbours, though, will have to learn radically new and better ways to work together, to agree on enduring values, to progress science and conservation, and to use resources wisely so we can create sustainable wealth in every sense of the phrase — environmental, social, economic and cultural.

Yet, this will be a very natural thing for us to do. We are oceanic people. We can reconnect with our past and together create a better future.

*This is an edited extract from “Tectonic Z: Creating a zone of hope” by Rod Oram, published in Griffith REVIEW: Pacific Highways, edited by Lloyd Jones and Julianne Schultz.