How Not to Ruin Your Country

27 Nov

There’s this encroaching sense of doom I can’t shake. Not ordinary doom, not the kind that promises to obliterate everything within minutes, the kind that rips trees to the ground and roofs from houses. No this kind is slow creeping. A pending doom as yet unseen. And in my position as observer, balancing on a tightrope between warning bird and crazy person, the divide between those who see and those who don’t is razor sharp and untraversable.
I am not unique in my observation. I am not even near the top of those who see or close to seeing as clearly or as far as those who do, but I know that something is afoot and that we’ve just suffered a major setback here in New Zealand in terms of amassing a warrior class to fight the coming dismay. Worse actually, because it’s already here. And has been since 1986. That’s the year after I was born. It’s also the year our planet tipped the scales regarding the fine balance between resource use and biocapacity, our annual waste and toxic output versus the earths ability to reabsorb that waste.

You’ve all, I’m sure, heard of the giant island of rubbish the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch as it’s known. Maybe it’s just that there’s something extremely poetic about islands, be they trash or landmass, but somehow the disgusting enormity of this occurrence hasn’t resulted in it’s reduction via reabsorption. In fact, last I heard, there wasn’t even a sanctioned body willing to deal with it because it’s ostensibly ‘no one’s problem’ being that it’s in international waters. And right there is the eye of doom. If we can’t allocate a person to a problem, ideally the original arbiter of the issue, then we’re unwilling to take it on ourselves, collectively or otherwise. No thought to the fact that this kind of dislocated thinking creates a world full of unsolved problems. Or that because of our socialised desensitivity to community spirit or action these problems become the inheritance of our children, a group we supposedly do care about.

My doom is particularly strong today, because yesterday we, and I mean that completely – friends of mine, extended family members, and indeed the majority of those who did vote, voted in a National government to not deal with these giant ecological and social problems. We voted in an incumbent National government when, to joyfully reuse their previous elections campaign slogan, ‘It’s time for a change.’ But it’s not just time for a change, no, that’s far too relaxed (relaxation being a cancer that kills us here) it’s time to finally face up to the crises we’ve been nursing since 1986. Juliet Schor in her heartfelt, sophisticated and (if people would actually read it) life changing book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, states 1986 as a landmark year. Since then we’ve been operating at 40% above biocapacity. Where there is space enough on this planet for each person to have 4.5 acres globally, we’re using 6.4 acres on average. The statistics are daunting. They’re damn near debilitating. Especially when you add the overwhelming ‘head in the sand’ position to that calculation.

Things cannot go on as they are. Except, that’s exactly what we’ve voted for.

One of the first and most brilliant deep ecologists, Rachel Carson, wrote her seminal work Silent Spring in 1962.  She felt the doom. Perhaps luckily, she only lived for 2 years after the publication of Silent Spring, the contents of which are credited with advancing the global environmental movement (such as it is). Carson cautioned us to think twice about what chemicals we were allowing to flow freely into untainted waters. She pushed the idea of stewardship and a responsibility to maintaining and honouring the wondrous complexity of ecosystems. Since then, in giant strides, we have seen the world ravaged. Agriculture has taken a mammoth toll. But perhaps at fault more than any other one thing is human greed. Dr Seuss wrote the Lorax about it. Jesus tisk tisk’s it in the bible. And yet it’s as though as a society we’ve strategically sat down and gone ‘what are the worst aspects of our nature and how can we best put them to constant use?’

In Carson’s America in 1962 there was space still for a giant fridge, an extra child and a throw away lifestyle. Hell I can only imagine the appeal of finding stability in ‘stuff’ when, during the depression, there was so little stuff to go around. But instead of making people grateful for the small things they did have, the post-depression boom encouraged us to want so much stuff that the planet is struggling to hold it. Schor talks about the as yet un-perfected footprint calculation that gave rise to the ‘statistic’ that if everyone on the globe lived as Americans do, we’d need 5 planets to support the human population. Although this isn’t fact, it’s not complete hyperbole either.

To put my sense of doom into context and the further sinking feeling I have after National’s reelection (standing on a platform of asset sales, road building and an economic model of vast (unsustainable) growth) let’s look at the environmental situation that National did not take into account – using a chronology not of time but of things lost, here’s how we’re looking:

-Among birds and mammals, extinction is occurring at a hundred to a thousand times natural rates.

-38% of the 45,000 species studied by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are currently threatened with extinction.

– A quarter of all wild animals are at risk of disappearing.

– A U.S report on birdlife in 2009 found that 1/3 of all bird species are already endangered (read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom for a great fiction book that deals, in part, with this and other environmental clashes with humanity).

-The Living Planet Index which follows 1,686 vertebrate species has declined by 30% since 1970.

-in 2005 an assessment of the worlds ecosystems was carried out by the United Nations, finding that 60%, or 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services it studied, are being degraded or used unsustainably.

-In 2008 scientists found 405 oceanic dead zones, in comparison to 49 in the 1960’s (if only we’d listened to Carson). This basically means that ares which were once rich and diverse, populace with life, are now barren reservoirs of slime.

(all statistics taken from Plenitude)

Add to that that so many people are over worked and miserable and you might start feeling the doom approach. But that’s a good thing, because without that sense of dire straits we’re unlikely to do anything differently.

What’s remarkable about Schor is her simple solutions. Yes, this shit is catastrophically bad and New Zealand is probably staring down the barrel of far more environmental rape to come, but there are things that we can do.

The Green Party got close to talking about some of Schor’s ideas by proposing we create jobs by focusing on cleaning up our waterways. In Plenitude, Schor advocates for a change to the arbitrary 40 hour work week. She says we should work less. That the reduction in work hours by some increase the job opportunities for others. That with those free hours we can begin to build a life not reliant on the market (in other words, start doing things that aren’t making money or spending it). We can garden and provide our own food sources, make our own clothes, share resources with others in our communities (like child care for instance). We can lead richer lives, independent of money or greed, whilst still getting mental stimulation and satisfaction. There are more jobs to go around, less stress on over production and a remembrance of a time when objects had real value not a throw away fashionable value that changes with the wind. We would waste less, want for less, have more time and be more fulfilled.

Pretty simple no?

I think what Schor is saying is wake up. Even if the country you live in votes against it’s own long term best interests, it’s not unimportant to change your own life into a better working model. I’m saying this mainly for me, to try and dissuade the doom. I’ll let you know how I go.


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