New Zealand after Nuclear War

Anthropological Aspects of “New Zealand after Nuclear War” [1987-1988]

Comments on the findings of the book, NZ after NW, are due to the Minister of the Environment by 27 November 1987. Written ideas for an anthropological submission to the Ministry are needed by 5 November to M. Pamela Bumsted.

References and background material are located in the Piddington library, main library, or UGRR.

At the Women and Anthropology Group open meeting three reasons were identified for including anthropology in policy discussions

  • we have resources and expertise to help develop the vocabulary and appropriate context for consideration of this topic by the public
  • we have specific information on how humans adapt or fail to cope, especially relevant to New Zealand (and the Pacific)
  • we should raise issues relevant to expertise from other disciplines which we feel are important (e.g., ethics of emigration and immigration policy)

In general, discussions of Nuclear Winter have focussed on technical issues and narrow aspects of social systems, not comprehensively on people nor on issues of human relations. Policy has been planned with a bias towards rosy pictures of success. The anthropological input is needed to balance such images and to provide accurate information for informed decisions to be made.

The submission for November can only highlight ideas andtopics we feel should be included in further research and public discussion on the topic. Fuller discussion and evaluation of ideas directly related to the topic may be cited (if such exist) or should be collated, developed, and elaborated upon at a later time as the Ministry continues its inquiry. The submission is not a prediction but a proposal.

One might hope that inclusion of anthropological ‘answers’ in a context of Nuclear War would point out how essential it is that such information about people be applied to current issues and current crises.


This document is a synthesis of discussions held in the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland to which many people contributed. The discussion originated in response to the publication ‘New Zealand After Nuclear War’ by Wren Green, Tony Cairns and Judith Wright. The views expressed by members of the department fall into two broad categories; firstly, the question of the framework within which the matter should be discussed; secondly, if such a war was to take place the effects on the society of New Zealand.

I. The Framework for Discussion

It is frequently stated that a nuclear war will be a disaster on a scale that has not been experienced previously, and that the effects will be of enormous and unknown magnitude quite different from anything seen previously. In general terms few would disagree with this, yet these basic tenets are not apparent in either public perception or government propaganda concerning the aftermath of nuclear war. In both instances it is clear that, either consciously or sub-consciously, thinking, and therefore planning, is based on models of what has happened in previous disasters and fails to come to terms with the fundamental difference between nuclear war, and say an earthquake.

The reaction to the publication of ‘New Zealand After Nuclear War’ was an example of popular thinking on the subject. News reports on commercial radio stations in Auckland summarised the main findings of the report by stating that a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere would destroy New Zealand export markets and would be detrimental to the balance of trade. Letters to the papers also showed appalling ignorance of the true magnitude of such a disaster.

S.A. Vingoe from Waiheke Island wrote, “We would be healthier by having to walk. The horse would again become useful instead of being relegated to the cat food tin…. People may die through lack of drugs and medicine, but perhaps a more healthy pioneering lifestyle would offset this, and who knows what ingenious alternatives might emerge.”

The reference to the pioneering lifestyle is a recurring theme in public discussion. It is particularly misleading idea, and I will return to the subject in more depth below. He/she concludes by writing, “We would be happier because we would be alive and with optimism and faith in ourselves we could create wonders.”

Even correspondents who did not share his/her enthusiasm for war appear to be hopelessly ill informed about the likely effects. Frieda McHugh wrote, “A recent report tells us that in the event of a nuclear attack New Zealand would be without its overseas trade. In that case the Government should encourage our manufacturers to keep going instead of forcing them out of business byallowing the market to be flooded with cheap imports.”

Politicians appear to be only marginally more cognizant of the prospects than the general public. Bill Dillon M.P. for Hamilton East advocated the establishment of more working museums to ensure the preservation of pioneering skills. Again, the subject of nuclear winter is referred to by analogy with the pioneering spirit. The civil defence advertisements transmitted on public television depict a group of happy laughing campers learning how to live outdoors; this piece of film footage could equally as well be used by the New Zealand tourist authorities to advertise holidays. The recreational activities of New Zealanders, perhaps more than any other nationality, focus around outdoor pursuits: the use of such scenes in public information films concerning the aftermath of nuclear war inevitably leads to a subconscious set of associations.

However well intentioned, these films portray the image that nuclear winter will be like a long holiday, and by implication, that one-day it will all be over, and everything will return to normal. Whilst we know very little about what the world will be like after nuclear war, we can be reasonably certain that there will be no return to anything like what we would term “normal”.

Similarly, the use of the pioneering analogy encourages comparison with the early days of European settlement. A cursory glance at advertisements on television shows the selling power of this idea in New Zealand. Many advertisements stress the self-reliance and practical skills of New Zealanders. One uses “Kiwi ingenuity” as its selling line. Another for beer begins “when we were forging this great country of ours”. The list is endless.

Either knowingly or unknowingly, images of a post nuclear war New Zealand focus around precisely those facets of life that are most likely to appeal to New Zealanders rather than horrify them. This does not create the appropriate framework within which to discuss the subject, and leads to misunderstandings of the type exemplified by letters to the papers. It can also be seen that whilst lip service is paid to the idea that nuclear war will be different from anything we have previously experienced, information and discussion focusses entirely around models (and entirely inappropriate models at that) of what has been experienced in New Zealand previously.

Anthropologists see their role in this matter as helping to develop an appropriate framework and vocabulary within which more meaningful discussion might take place.

II. The Effects on Society

The publication ‘New Zealand After Nuclear War’ has reviewed comprehensively the effect of nuclear war on the infrastructure of lifeon the food supply, energy, finance, etc. There can be no doubt that the support systems upon whichNew Zealand society depends will be destroyed, and thus there is little likelihood that we would be able to retain our social organisation as we know it. In addition, New Zealand is likely to become a target for mass migration. Even in a non-crisis situation largescale immigration is socially disruptive, and strains resources. If it were imposed upon a system already in chaos, the consequences would be immense.

This would give rise to ethical questions, such as

    Who has the right to survive?
    How is that right to be enforced?
    What, for instance, would be the position of non-New Zealanders who wanted to escape here?

This last question is likely to be particularly contentious as most New Zealanders have close friends and relatives overseas.

Anthropologists see their role in the following ways:

1. We would like to facilitate discussion taking a more holistic approach to the problem of society after nuclear war. So far, discussion on the aftermath of war has centred primarily on discussing individual components of the system, such as transport, communication, etc. We would like to approach the subject by making human beings the centre of our arguments. Anthropologists are possibly the only members of the scientific community who regularly discuss issues from the viewpoint of general human adaptability and everything which acts upon it.

2. We would like to bring into the discussion subjects that relate specifically to our own field of expertise, such as adaptive strategies, cultural adaptation, transmissionof culture, the demographic consequences of changing social structure, and archaeological evidence concerning constraints on societies reliant on low level technology.

3. We would like to facilitate discussion of some of the more difficult ethical problems such as migration and the possible racial consequences. We would like to look at the possible effects on interpersonal relationships

    will people still regard themselves as New Zealanders, or be interested in a national identity?
    might they not feel allegiance only to their close relatives and act for them alone at the expense of the community as a whole?
    might not even so-called “liberal” people deny others their rights in order to protect their own family?

Evidence from a tribe in Uganda who lost their subsistence base demonstrated how quickly distrust developed between community members and communications and relationships broke down. As a result, even when they were in a position to farm, and thus survive, they were unable to organise themselves. Reproduction ceased as family ties were broken and the tribe died out as a result.

This harps back to the first point raised, namely the framework within which the discussion takes place. It has to be appreciated that our present social structure moulds notonly our identity in material terms, but also our personality. If we were dispossessed of our material culture and placed under severe stress we would not act in the same way, and may well alter our opinions relating to interpersonal relationships. In this respect analogies with behaviour during other types of disaster is very misleading. Such disasters are usually transitory, temporary events, and behaviour is geared towards surviving until help arrives and the survivors are taken back to a “normal” world. In the event of a nuclear war, the effects would not be transitory or temporary, and there would be no “normal” world to go back to. Thus, even though initial reaction might be in keeping with behaviour as we have known it, long term the situation would be very different.

An edition of DUSC (Down Under Survival Committee) of 2nd November 1987 [see “New Zealand Nuclear Free Peacemaking Association”] had the following statement, “most New Zealanders are doomed to survive a nuclear war”.

If there was a realistic appraisal of the type of society likely to result from the consequences of nuclear war many would probably be in agreement with this view, and would wonder if there was any great merit attached to being a survivor. We suggest that life would be very different from the rosy picture painted by S.A. Vingoe.

We appreciate that public discussion of these issues is a difficult task to undertake, and likely to be fraught with problems. We realise that there will be no easy or quick solution. In our discussions, we perceived at least two major obstacles to discussion:

The problem of putting over unpalatable and unpleasant ideas. People will always prefer to believe optimistic reports regardless of theirveracity, and indeed some people can only cope with the thought of nuclear weapons by either shutting the idea out altogether or belittling the effects.

The problem of putting over very complex, and necessarily unknown and untestable, ideas concerning the possible nature of human society after a nuclear war. people prefer to hear simplistic ideas firmly stated. Ideas concerning post war society will not only be hard to communicate, but also by their very structure, vulnerable to glib attack.

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