The Commonillth

In the winter holidays we went to Auckland to see some friends.  We drove up and drove back, and in between we stayed with our friends in their house on the North Shore not too far from the Chelsea sugar factory on the shores of the Waitemata Harbour.  On the way up we stopped for a picnic at Rotorua, and on the way back for a history lesson at Rangiriri.  While we were in Auckland we went down to the Chelsea sugar factory which has large parks around it, and to the Auckland Zoo, and to a very fancy restaurant.  The rest of the time we hung around at our friend’s house in Auckland often staying up quite late, drinking a bit too much, and looking at ridiculous things on Youtube.

One of the high points of the trip was discovering that the water fountains at the Auckland Zoo look exactly like penises.  To be honest, this was hilarious until the first person came over to use one.  The image of the burbling water coming out of the top, and someone beginning to lower their head towards the stream quickly turned this joke into a horror show.  I spent the rest of the time at the zoo trying to blot potentially horrific images out of my peripheral vision.

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While we were at our friend’s house I wrote this (which you shouldn’t try to read),

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I’m not really sure why I wrote this.  Partly it was probably to justify the purchase of yet another small notebook.  I have a slight problem with purchasing small notebooks.  Aside from some consumer guilt though, nothing was really bothering me.  I suppose it was the product of being on holiday and having a little bit of time on my hands.  Sometimes writing is like watching your sub-conscious bubbling up to the surface of the page in front of your eyes.  The basic gist of what I wrote is that capitalism has delivered tremendous benefits and happiness but that it has no “enough” mechanism, and that something that was once good (on the whole) can become increasingly bad (on the whole).  It can become like the drug that saved you which is now killing you; or the once starving man now dying of illnesses created by their current obesity.  The fact that I wrote this kind of thing and not witty observations on Auckland suburbia tells you what kind of weird, self-absorbed person I can be.

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One thing that I find surprising about myself is that at 40 I am crosser than I have ever been in my entire life.  My understanding of what I am supposed to like at 40 is based on watching lame TV shows as a teenager, and these suggested that all middle-aged parents were supposed to be boring, complacent and supportive of the machine.  Of course it is quite likely that I was lied to by TV when I was a teenager and that plenty of middle-aged parents were never like this.  When I say that I am cross I want you to understand that I mean jolly cross.  I don’t mean that I am a bit miffed, or that I whine at the TV.  In fact I never watch the news on TV.  Aside from the un-examined fact that the news makes both my children start fighting with each other, watching the news on TV is like watching an extended advertisement for global corporations, celebrity and disasters (disasters that affect white people, preferably English-speaking white people).  The news is, by its very nature, relentlessly about the now, and doesn’t encourage you to reflect, or join things together.

A while ago now someone sent me a link to the trailer of a film about Midway Island.  It contains images likes this:

birds

It is not an image I put on my blog (for the second time) lightly.  It is also not an image I have been able to get out of my mind.  Images like this disturb us deeply.  It is the juxtaposition I think.  The recognition of the plastic bottle cap tossed out every week in our own household, and the stomach of a once living bird.  The mind recoils a little, confused, and then appalled.  It is something that Russell Brand talks about in his guest editorial for The New Statesman.  For him it came while in Kenya in a sprawling, fetid rubbish dump:

Here and there, picking through this unending slander, children foraged for bottle tops, which had some value, where all is worthless.

For a while when I returned to my sanitised house and my sanitised state of mind I guiltily thumbed bottle tops for a moment before I disposed of them.

For me it was Vietnam where I went on holiday in 2002 with Cathy and some friends while we were living in Japan.  It was the first time that I confronted poverty.

I’m not a fan.

On our second to last day in Vietnam I became trapped in a personal hell as we walked around trying, desperately trying, to off load our cash because we were leaving the next day.  We went in and out of shops, and sometimes bought things, and all the while a little Vietnamese boy tagged along behind me wanting to shine my shoes.  My shoes, as it happened, were new and highly polished.  I didn’t need a shoe shine.  Also I don’t like the idea of someone shining my shoes.  It feels like I think I am better than them.  Also the guide-book tells you it’s a scam.  The shoe shine boys all have to hand over any money they make to organised gangs.  See how many reasons I march in front of you to justify the fact that I did not give him any money to shine my shoes?  It’s not simply that I feel bad about it – which I do – or that I should have just had the guy shine my damn shoes – which I should have – but that it was a no win situation.

Probably the best thing to do was what we did, which was buy things from local shops.  Sometimes I wonder about that too.  I have occasionally come across those same things in New Zealand shops, and in the New Zealand shops those things which cost a pittance in Vietnam come with quite a significant price tag.  Who is making money off of that?  Probably not the worker in the factory in Vietnam mass producing bamboo bowls.  Or the guy chopping the bamboo in the plantation.

Bottle tops and Kenya and birds and shoe shine boys and bamboo bowls.  Am I supposed to make sense of this?

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Last week, like a lot of people, I read the article The Ocean is Broken.  It is about a yachtsman repeating a voyage from Australia to America via Japan he last made 10 years ago.  The second half of the article records his trip through the massive amounts of debris and pollutants still in the sea between Asia and America thanks to the Japanese tsunami.  The first half of the article comes when the writer of the article encounters a fishing trawler on the way to Japan from Australia.  After spending days at sea and catching almost nothing (ten years ago catching fish not been a problem) they encounter a fishing trawler working 24/7 along a reef.  The trawler sends out a speedboat, and the fishermen give them five sacks (sacks!) of fish.

“We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard. That’s what they would have done with them anyway, they said.

“They told us that his was just a small fraction of one day’s by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing.”

Which brings me back to being cross really angry about things.  Birds dead because of plastic rubbish.  Angry!  Living things killed for no reason.  Angry!  Indifference and venality of modern society.  Angry!  But anger is unpleasant as a state, and as a thing to be around.  I don’t think you are going to convince people of much if you are angry all the time.  It’s not far from a permanent state of anger to either (a) hospitalisation, or (b) fanaticism, both of which are bad for you.  It’s so tiring being angry about the random horrors and injustices that pop into your life.  Part of the problem is the very randomness.  One day I am excised about over-fishing.  The next about Bangladeshi workers’ rights.  The next about recycling.  The next about political donations.  It becomes directionless and, worse, overwhelming.

The other problem is the fragmented response.  For one problem you are told to join Greenpeace.  For another to send a donation or message of support via Amnesty International.  In another case it is KidsCan, or CanTeen, or the SPCA or the Cats’ Protection League, or… well, you get the idea.  Once again, just like the parade of problems, the parade of responses becomes overwhelming, and your good intentions become directionless.  Sometimes even self-contradictory.  Are we saving cats or native birds this Tuesday?  Campaigning for a higher minimum wage or donating to the food bank?

What’s missing is a narrative.  A story that fits the problems and the response together.

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There are two ways I get pumped up for work while I am walking down Riddiford Street and up Adelaide Road.  I either listen to Rage Against the Machine, or I listen to Robert Kennedy.  With apologies for the plangent music, here are two minutes of Bobby’s life he spent very well,

It’s a great thing to say, and resonates profoundly in me (I have long suspected myself of being a monk in a past life), but it didn’t connect to much else in my brain until this week when I started reading a related clump of things more or less by accident.  The first crumb on the trail to enlightenment was an article called The End of Illth.  To be honest I thought that Illth must be a place in America and that I was going to be reading about the demise of a mining town.  Illth is not a place.  It’s a term coined by Ruskin to describe the negative effects that are generated alongside wealth. Without going over each piece of bread on the trail, after reading The End of Illth, I eventually came to a writer called Jonathan Rowe who wrote a lot about illth, and GDP, and the commons before his sudden death in 2011.  Reading him was like being sat down by my non-existent American uncle and having everything explained to me.

The economic problem is not markets per se. To the contrary, markets can be spontaneous and flexible; and can provide an outlet for enterprise and creativity. Most of us would not want to live without them, in some form. The problem is that the modern corporate market—which is very different from small scale local ones—has exceeded the boundaries of its own usefulness. Much of what is called “growth” today actually is a form of cannibalization, in which the market consumes that which ultimately sustains us all.

An article he wrote in 1995 with two others called If GDP is up, why is America down? sort of blew my mind.  They are like the liner notes to the snippet of the Bobby Kennedy speech which gets played a lot but is never really analysed. In the section that picks apart GDP as an indicator of “success” the authors note the following: (a) GDP calculates the quantity of production and does not account for the quality of that production, (b) GDP allows things that are bad to be counted as good (legal fees from divorce proceedings, expensive cancer treatments, earthquake rebuilding… so more cancer and more divorce is good for the economy), (c) the depletion of resources in a system which simply records the money you made from the act of depletion is also “good” for GDP, (d) pollution allows you to add to GDP three times: once for making the product, again for the business to clean up the mess, and a third time for the medical costs of helping the ill, (e) GDP doesn’t have any use for voluntary work, or stay-at-home parents; the economy is doing better when there are paid child-care facilities, and retirement homes, (f) GDP doesn’t gauge how wealth is distributed, and (g) it doesn’t care if you are consuming too much food/booze/anti-depressants, just that you are.

In a book published after his death Jonathan Rowe talks about the idea and reality of the commons.

The commons includes our entire life support system, both natural and social.  The air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness and flowing water… so are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories of childhood, and the processes of democracy.  Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature, others the product of human endeavor.  Some are new, such as the internet; others are as ancient as the soil and calligraphy.  What they have in common is that they all “belong” to all of us, if that is the word.  No one has exclusive rights to them.  We inherit them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us (p.14).

The problem, of course, is that capitalism has encroached very far indeed into this ideal.  It seeks to privatise, and takes little responsibility for consequences.  If the sea belongs to us all why is the ocean broken, and why aren’t those who are breaking it not being curtailed?  If the sky belongs to us all why is it being degraded without any meaningful consequence?  Never mind the earth, the waterways, and the National Parks.  But more than that, what about our society?  GDP may record both parents working as good, but it isn’t.  Not for the first few years of a child’s life.  Not really.  GDP may record TVNZ7 becoming TVONE+1 as good (advertising revenues are up), but it isn’t.  How could it be good to take away the one free source of information in a crowded commercial network?  But then when National is in power in this country they always question the existence of National Radio, one of our last information commons.

The internet is going the same way.  I noticed recently that ads sometimes appear at the bottom of my posts.  Wordpress informs me that it is to pay for the “free service” they are offering me.  While you’re watching Youtube now the ads are ever-present, and intrusive (Air New Zealand wanted me to buy something while I was listening to Robert Kennedy rail against GDP).  It makes things like Wikipedia and PapersPast look increasingly rare and precious.  Twitter and Facebook list, and ads increase.  Can’t they just leave us alone?  Does advertising have to be everywhere?  Embedded in TV shows as well as between them, on my children’s school books, on trailers parked by the side of the road?  Fonterra’s milk in schools is advertising.  Let’s be honest, it’s a way to get an ad into every state school in the country.  If it wasn’t about advertising I’m sure Fonterra could deliver it’s milk in big re-usuable containers and supply the schools with glasses, or – even better – use all of the money they have spent on this advertisement to lower the cost of milk.

But, and this is a crucial but, the idea of rewriting GDP as a measure and having the government define and protect our commons much better is not actually a statement that is anti-capitalist.

What seems clear is that the protected commons needs to be enlarged.  It does what the market can’t do, and that is what nowadays most needs to be done.  We need, increasingly, clean air and convivial communities.  We also need markets and the things they produce, but the balance needs to shift (p.43)

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Russell Brand called for revolution recently.  I love the man, and think that he may be right – if the system doesn’t change there may well be revolution in some parts of the world – but I don’t believe revolution is necessary.  Revolution tends to be violent and vengeful and destroy without creating, which are all things that we should avoid.  At all costs.  Martin Luther King was a revolutionary.  If Brand means that kind of revolution then I’m in.  If he means riots on the street then count me out.  Brand’s message though is right.  If we can’t get the balance back – between us and the planet, between each other – then we are heading to a very bad place indeed.

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A place like Rangiriri perhaps.

We stopped there on the way back from our holiday to Auckland.  Rangariri is the site of a battle.  A place where the British and the Maori of the Waikato clashed.  The Maori trying to check the land and power grabs of the British, the British attempting to assert authority and take the spoils.  Just one of many countless places where the economic revolution that spread capitalism and privatisation around the world was played out against peoples more used to thinking of commons.  Not that I am writing a paean to a fanciful vision of Maori culture in the 19th century.  I wouldn’t have lasted too long in a society like that.  Myopic, pointy-headed whingers don’t have many uses.  I would either have been fodder for a swiftly applied mere, or dropped dead at the thought of unanesthetized dental care.

If Rangiriri is too distant a picture, or too long of a bow to draw to illustrate privatisation verse the commons then try Bastion Point.  If those are too indigenous for you, try French nuclear testing in the Pacific – the right of one group to destroy ecosystems and societies in the Pacific.  If that’s too French for you try the partial privatisation of TVNZ and the laughable charter.  Every waterway access blocked by development, every waterway too polluted to drink, every website like ancestry.com that wants to charge people to search public records, every extension of copyright on authors long, long dead.

We don’t want to end our battles at Rangiriri.  On that little hillock now you can see all around the flat, grassed farmlands and fences.  Across some of those pastures to the west lies the Waikato.  On the day we visited it was a featureless grey band between the heavy, dark green fields.  Hardly a trace of the wetlands and scrub that was once there.  I wonder how easy it is now for the public to get down to the Waikato River from Rangiriri, how well those fences that keep people out keep cows and their effluent out of the river water, how the fish stock and diversity is holding up.

There are more Rangiriri’s ahead I suspect.  Clashes over the commons.  They are clashes over our lives, our right to be with our kids, or to be alone in our garden for a time, or in bed with a book: to have time in other words. They are clashes over the sky, the sea and the land.  They are clashes over our democratic processes, and our access to information, about our places of learning and our hospitals.  I hope that we can find that balance and protect our common spaces.  I hope that we can do so peacably.  I hope we don’t meet at Rangiriri.

Sources

Trailer for the film Midway

Russell Brand’s Editorial in the New Statesmen

The Ocean is Broken, article from Newcastle Herald

The End of Illth – Harpers

The Illth of Nations – Boston Review

If GDP is up, why is America down? 1995 article in the Atlantic

Our Common Wealth, book by Jonathan Rowe

Russell Brand interview with Jeremy Paxman

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2 thoughts on “The Commonillth

  1. Hear, hear! We’re so used to using money as our metric for judging worth that we even let it into our own lives. We let how much we have define our value as people, and allow that definition to be a concrete fence that divides us from our neighbours. The very notion of a commons becomes alien to a society whose populace thinks it needs weekly mani/pedis, or deserves reward for a trying week of decidedly first-world problems.
    That Russel Brand interview also came to my attention recently, and was one of the best things I’ve ever seen: a timely message delivered from someone who differentiates between seriousness and solemnity, and does not let the gravity of a situation preclude having a sense of humour.
    Thanks for another great post!

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