What is wrong with us? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things needed to cut emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have struggled to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck, because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and benefit the vast majority – are threatening to an elite minority with a stranglehold over our economy, political process and media.
This is my Gran and me in 1973. She was born in 1910, and I suppose that I might die in the 2050s (fingers crossed). That is 140 years: from her birth to my death. It sounds like a long time, but it is really only the time it takes two people who knew each other to live. Not so long really. Through my Gran I knew a person who knew an age without cars, radios, televisions, aeroplanes, electricity in homes… it’s a long list. When my Gran died in 2005 she died in a society that was unrecognisable in many ways to the society in which she was born. Some of that change was good, and some of it was not.
It is a truism to say that change is the only constant. It is also something of a lie. Most things stay the same and it is only occasionally that fundamentals change. I feel that we are living in an age of fundamental change, and few in the mainstream of politics acknowledge it, either because they want everything to stay the same and are burying their heads in the sand, or they think there are no votes in acknowledging that change, or both.
I have had the great displeasure of watching three leaders’ debates. I have watched two debates between Key and Cunliffe, and one minor party debate. They have been universally terrible. With the exception of a few brief moments in the minor party debate all three debates have been dominated by talk about tax and housing. Almost all of the material in both main debates was about these two topics. There was a flutter on inequality and poverty, but I feel it has had about equal coverage with Cunliffe and Key’s perfect date night. Mike Hosking has been setting the tone of the debates. John Campbell simply tells everyone how grateful he is that they appeared on his show. I applaud his civility, but not much else.
Probably I am in the minority, but I care about other things.
In this election it has been quite easy to forget that one of the most pressing world issues is climate change. It has been easy to forget that many places in the world are falling apart and that we seem to be aligning ourselves with the greatest purveyor of violence in the world for the last 65 years: the USA – proudly taking up the baton of violence from Europe who exported genocide to the world from the late 1400s into the early 20th century. It is easy to forget that the right to privacy has shrunk against the state’s right to conduct surveillance on its citizens, that domestic violence and child abuse remain appalling high, as does our incarceration rate, and the shocking fact that the poor, uneducated and disenfranchised in this country more often than not are brown. Of almost all of this not a murmur. Of the ins and outs of a policy to tax the second property of the better off we have had accusations and counter accusations until the cows come home. The reason for this is that the leaders of the main political parties are mainly talking to the enfranchised. As you would expect them to.
In one of the televised debates David Cunliffe briefly managed a moment of passion (Matthew Hooton called it “pretend” passion) about child poverty before John Key began debating statistical breakdowns of what constitutes being in poverty much in the way the US military discusses collateral damage in drone strikes. Neither are interested in questioning certain principles that underpin our system. Not many votes there.
Capital gains tax and tax cuts do not concern me. What causes me anxiety is the state of the world. Even just my little bit of the world causes me anxiety. Twice this year I have been to the park near my house and filled bags and bags with rubbish that has blown there, and cleared away the mess of bottles and cans from some late night piss up. It concerns me that we live in that kind of world. The kind of world where mass consumption of packaged, throwaway products in the name of convenience, fun and employment outweighs all other concerns. The kind of world where the ocean appears to be very, very sick, and terrestrial habitats manifestly continue to shrink, while the TV is plastered with ads for new cars, new phones, new everything for the new you. Such a shame we destroyed the planet for the convenience of packaged food. Such a shame we wrecked it all for the sake of expressing our individuality when we are really so similar to each other.
What also causes me anxiety is the suffering of others. The suffering that dislocates and makes kids unable to cope with school, the suffering that causes people to pass on suffering to others, that leads to bruises and tears and broken hearts and bones, the suffering that prisons cause, that soldiers in Afghanistan cause, that poverty causes when your children are coughing at night in your shitty rental and there’s not much food and not much petrol for the car, and the doctor feels a bit distant, and indifferent, and possibly expensive. The suffering of living in a land where your own language and culture is either disrespected or paid lip service to. I worry about that because that is a society I may be passing on to my children and their peers. An unhappy, divisive society.
Other ways must be possible. We are constantly told that the world has changed, but nothing fundamental seems to alter. What “change” mostly comes down to is how neat it is for rich people who can afford these things to be able to take a selfie in Hawaii and tweet it to their followers instantaneously. The pressure points of oppression shift from one group to another, but the need apparently remains not to help those who are outside the main narrative too much; those who don’t speak the language of money, “success”, and “normal” in the society we have fabricated out of media and capitalism. Somewhere I read a line from an African American on Ferguson that seemed to sum it all up: “For us it’s not a justice system; it’s a punishment system”. The underlying and overarching principles remain a fixed star: money and jobs, it’s the economy stupid, cost benefit analyses. As if we all speak that language of dollars and investments and anything else is frivolous, unrealistic, and deluded.
Doesn’t it seem that a system of generating wealth that degrades our water, land and air is flawed? Doesn’t it seem like a system that keeps certain groups essentially poor and disenfranchised generation after generation is flawed? Doesn’t it seem like repeating inter-generational offending is a failure? And yet to challenge the principles these things rest on appears to be beyond us.
One day I may hold a grandchild of mine in my arms. I may not – it is something out of my hands – but it is likely. That could be in 25 to 30 years. Where will we be then? My Gran lived though the depression, and the first Labour government. She saw a couple of world wars, and Prime Ministers Holyoake, Kirk, Muldoon and Lange. She witnessed huge shifts in society around women, Maori, and sexuality – shifts she may not have entirely approved of – not to mention the more obvious technological changes. But here’s the thing: most of those shifts, which have so radically altered society, are nothing when held against climate change, and capitalism’s inability to adapt to the new reality. This election or next election it will have to change. It will have to move from “it’s the economy, stupid” to “it’s the planet, stupid”.
Or not. I could be wrong. Or I could be right and we might not change anyway. We might debate the merits of a capital gains tax while Kiritbati vanishes from the map, and the droughts deepen and lengthen in Northland.
In the mean time I’m voting Green.