Can We Fix It?

The Anthropocene will be marked by a unique “biostratigraphical signal,” a product of the current extinction event on the one hand and of the human propensity for redistributing life on the other.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

On Friday I went around the school and took down all the posters I had put up to promote the finals for the “Can We Fix It?” night on Thursday.

In Term Four the Social Studies department at my school asks the students to research a topic of their choosing.  The students must find out what different groups think about a current world problem, and what those groups are doing in response to that problem.  The overarching theme is: “Can We Fix It?”.  Once the students have spent a few weeks gathering, highlighting and annotating their information they must turn their findings into a presentation.  We encourage as wide a range of presentation methods as possible, and the results are quite frequently astounding.  Every single student in Year 9 and 10 is involved in doing presentations to their classes, and each class picks a winner to go to the final.  We had 15 presentations in the final on Thursday.

Taking down one of the posters on Friday I noticed that next to the title “Can We Fix It?” someone had written in very small letters: “no”.

It made me smile: that “no”.  Although that “no” ran counter to the spirit displayed at the finals evening it was a rejoinder I had thought myself quite a few times in the build up.  My answer to the question “Can we fix it?” was actually “probably not”.  It was “probably not” even though my heart is with the young.  Even though, when it comes down to it, and all pithy cynical quips are put aside, I will be with the idealists and against the cynics.  Which is why finals night was a good night for the idealists.  The 13, 14 and 15 year olds who presented wanted the world to be a healthy, safe and tolerant place, and I want that too.

Yet, as I sat in the wings watching yet another talented young woman deliver her presentation, I thought: “I hope we leave them a world worth inheriting.”

***

 *

When I first began working at my current school I was very pleased by the fact that I could walk to work.  Initially I was pleased because I could greedily calculate the amount of money I was saving every day by not having to drive out to the Hutt and back five times a week.  After my inner Scrooge had been satisfied I began to notice that I was noticing a lot more about the community I was walking through.  Later, when I was on a health kick I started trying to walk, and then run, through the town belt.  This came to end one day when I lost my footing half way down a scrubby bank, slid about 50 metres on my arse, and came to halt by nearly breaking my arm on a passing tree trunk.  Lying in the bush, in the drizzle, with a sore arse and an aching arm I decided that my attempts to improve my health were becoming potentially quite counter-productive.

Recently I have begun to notice other things on the walk to work.  Rubbish.  Everywhere.  Down all the gutters, eddying about in the doorways of shops, and trapped in the little spaces between buildings.  One area that always traps the most rubbish is any kind of garden space.  Wind blows rubbish into the branches of the bushes planted by the road or outside buildings and gets stuck there.  Those scrubby banks of plants also make a good spot for people to drop their bottles, cans, fish and chip wrappers, McDonalds’ burger boxes, and takeaway coffee cups.  If you want to make sure the street front of your institutional building looks nice then you should rip out your plants and have sheer concrete walls; the rubbish will blow away and be someone else’s problem.

Someone else’s problem.  This seems be capitalism’s pithy response to any question about resource depletion and environmental and social costs.  Whether the someone is disenfranchised and therefore unimportant, or whether that someone is actually a something like the earth, sea, or sky or the plants and creatures that call those things home. And then there’s us.  It is handy to pretend that talking about capitalism is just talking about business, but it’s  not a business that pops its Coke cans in the bushes at the bus stop and hopes no one sees.  It’s us.

***

 *

One of the major problems facing the world is humanity’s colossal ego.  That ego can be seen in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It’s not that I don’t like this document, I do, it’s just that it seems a bit limited in its scope.  Like religion, this atheist tract talks only about people, and gives the environment we are a part of short shrift.  Take the first article:

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Let’s ignore for a moment the sexist language, and reflect on how this document would change if the word Human was dropped from the title, and the text.

  • All beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights… and should act towards one another in a spirit of being-hood.

I think you can see where I am going with this.

  • Every being has the right to life, liberty and security of being.
  • No being shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
  • No being shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, in”human” or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Every being has the right to recognition everywhere as a being before the law.

Power corrupts, and absolute power?  Well here we are with extinctions running at record highs, and climate change about to slip into crisis territory.  Of course, if we gave all beings the same status we gave ourselves we would all starve to death inside a month so let’s not go too crazy here, but surely we can begin to be a bit more nuanced, a bit humbler, a bit more respectful to what sustains us?

***

*

Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction has a lot of bad news in it.  A  few things have struck me as I am reading it.  As is always the case with any book that talks about the life cycle of a planet the first thing I notice is how vanishingly small the current period on Earth is.  Which led me to my next thought: life as we know it on Earth – the flaura and fauna – is almost entirely unique to this period and for the most part has not been around that long (if you are speaking of time as a geologist).  My final thought (I am about half way through the book) is that most of life has depended, and still relies, on tiny details, on masses of teeming life that is part of a huge inter-related web.  Just because humans tend to notice the big things – “Save the Whales” – doesn’t mean that the plankton is unimportant.

I didn’t know until I read the first chapter of The Sixth Extinction that New Zealand even had native frogs.  We have four species (we used to have seven).  Unfortunately the reason that I know this now is because the first chapter of Kolbert’s book is about the emergence of a new strand of chytrid fungus that is destroying frog populations globally.  This fungus is at play in New Zealand too, and has been part of the reason that our frog populations have shrunk.  The Hamilton’s Frog is down to 300 individuals.  Which is concerning when you consider this statement:

Frogs are declining everywhere in the world. More than most creatures, frogs are sensitive to disease, pollution, chemical poisons and environmental changes, as they absorb many things through their sensitive, semi-permeable skin. For this reason they are often used as a barometer of ecosystem health. They may even act as an early warning system for the quality of the environment and potential threats to other animals including humans.

Department of Conservation

The problem being that I wasn’t even aware that we had this particular “early warning system” in New Zealand.  Not to mention that we’re talking about frogs which a lot of people (including me) don’t really like the look of so lots of people (including me) probably wouldn’t chain themselves to trees to protect.  But even those two problems are minor compared to the larger problem: our way of understanding ecology is framed by capitalism which breaks ecosystems down into component resources to be exploited.  This way of seeing things is an anathema to how rich, diverse and interconnected life is.

Special legislation is to be passed by Parliament to enable the recovery of high value native timber blown over in Cyclone Ita on West Coast public conservation land.

Department of Conservation, June 2014

You will note: high value native timber.

Current conservation law does not provide for the recovery of timber for commercial purposes. Urgent legislation is required to recover timber because it will deteriorate if left too long and lose its commercial value.

DOC

Of course a fallen tree has other value.

A rotting tree is nature’s way of recycling its nutrients and its stored energy back into the forest ecosystem. Rotting trees support a host of life, such as kaka, which feed on the range of grubs and other insects that consume the wood. The kakariki and the pekapeka (the native bat) use the holes in these dead trees as nesting and roosting sites.

Forest and Bird

But capitalism doesn’t think like this.  It thinks in resource inventories.  It divides wood from earth from birds from grubs from bats, and sees commercially valuable timber.  Even when it gets its arm twisted to mitigate damage it is cack-handed.

The native plants and animals that live in areas that are mined are seriously threatened by mining activity. For example, Solid Energy “relocated” thousands of the giant native Powelliphanta snails so could remove their entire habitat at Stockton to mine coal, but up to 40% of the snails have died after being transferred, and many are still being kept in fridges.

Forest and Bird

Never was there a worse moment in modern history for the natural world than when “it’s the economy, stupid” became political commonsense.

***

 *

Sitting in the wings of the stage for the “Can We Fix It?” evening on Thursday I created my own inventory of the concerns of young women in New Zealand.  Not represented in the finals night, but represented in many of the heats, were the topics of deteriorating mental health, and the competitive narcissism of social media.  The themes of the finals night were climate change, the death of whole species, and the continuing vulnerability of women.  We heard about Boko Haram, the Taliban’s attitude to women, and Roast Busters.  We heard about climate change in New Zealand, in the Galapagos Islands, at the Great Barrier Reef, and around the world.  We heard also about the end of the rhino and the Sumatran Tiger.

Although the presentation on the Sumatran Tiger did not win the night, it deservedly picked up the award for crowd favourite.  Seeing the talent, energy, intelligence and wit on display on Thursday night made me decide that the answer to the question “Can we fix it?” should be “perhaps” instead of “probably not”.  As long as there is any chance to fix it we should keep on trying, the generation coming up behind us want us to, and we should endeavour to leave them a world worth inheriting.

How we respond to this slow, unfolding global crisis may come to define us as a species.