Where I come from
Ka tangi te titi; ka tangi te kaka; ka tangi hoki ahau. Tihei mauri ora!
(The titi calls, the kaka calls; I call too. Behold – there is life!)1
What space am I in?
From Paris, France, Bruno Latour comes calling, introducing himself and laying down a challenge:
“Now…it’s your turn to present yourself, tell us a little bit about where you would like to land and with whom you agree to share a dwelling place.” 2
From Christchurch, New Zealand I reply, in the words of another European:
“Auf Erdballs letztem Inselriff
Begreif ich, was ich nie begriff.
Ich sehe, und ich uberseh’
Des Lebens wechselvolle See…” 3
(At the fartherest island reef of Earth, I grasp what I never understood before. I see, and I look over, Life’s ever-changing sea…)
The poem was written by a Jewish German refugee, Karl Wolfskehl, who came to New Zealand seeking sanctuary in the 1930s. It goes on to convey his dream-like experiences of being at the other end of the world, in a country with a superficial biological resemblance to his homeland (with people, plants and animals of European descent), and yet where he wanders as in a ‘green dream’, as unsure of who he is as of where he is.
I was born in New Zealand, as were my parents, grandparents and great grandparents, and have thankfully never had to seek refuge anywhere else. Why did my great-great grandparents come here? What refuge – or opportunity – were they seeking, that it was worth enduring six hard months in a sailing ship just to get here, and leaving their English families behind forever? I will never know what motivated them. All I know is that they and thousands upon thousands more from the ‘Old Country’ brought the styles and techniques of industrial farming, manufacturing, mining, logging and travelling with them, and so changed this land I call home forever.
Unlike Wolfskehl, I am sure of where I am, of the space that I live in. It is a bitter-sweet surety, built from my knowledge of past destructions and how and why they were inflicted and from my equally important knowledge of the indigenous flora and fauna, of landscapes, soils and waters, of growing gardens in three different cities and now in a valley on Banks Peninsula.4 When I go out to garden, I am invariably greeted and often pursued by Wero-iti (Little Challenge), the fantail of the day who chooses to follow me and chirp at me as I inadvertently stir up insects to be snapped up. But often I think it is done as much for companionship as for food – or so it seems when there is more chirping than eating, and I stop work to chirp or talk back.
I share my dwelling place with the fantail tribe and many other creatures with pleasure, even if the fruitarians and herbivores among them sometimes take advantage. My partner and I have created a one hectare haven with them as well as us in mind, even though we never have and probably never will see the smallest and rarest among them, such as the six-eyed spider endemic to Banks Peninsula. Yet the tiny native greenhood orchids miraculously sow themselves, and appear every year at their due time, as does the amazing basket fungus, the tutae kehua with its perfect lattice work popping whole and complete out of a puffy white globe.
All the inhabitants of my home space are protected and nourished by a diverse habitat, free from toxic chemicals and rich in soil biology, as all plant wastes go back to the soil as compost or mulch. But our home is inside the legal territory of a city, Christchurch, which is inside the territory of a nation-state, New Zealand, which is inside… ultimately, the Gaia-zone. This is the space in which all life, including humans, evolved, the ‘Goldilocks zone’, where conditions are just right for a great diversity of beings to flourish and in so doing contribute to the flourishing of all others.
Bruno Latour summarises the science behind this reality as it was known when he wrote Facing Gaia and it continues to be built upon by scientists who are not stuck in the Deus Ex Machina epistemological trap of too many of their colleagues. It’s hard to find such serious work in the popular science press, which tends to focus on over-hyped technological marvels which seldom come to pass. Yet one such article appeared in the 20 March 2019 issue of New Scientist (Gaia rebooted: New version of idea explains how Earth evolved for life) which has far greater explanatory power than the tautological and teleological versions of natural selection based on ‘survival of the fittest’ which currently dominate popular scientific interpretations of biological realities.
History is littered with stories of scientists who challenged the dominant paradigm or understanding of their time and were treated badly by the authorities and/or their colleagues as a result. Or they were just ignored. Yet knowing what I know about the place where I dwell and those who dwell here with me, Latour’s account of the seminal work of the ‘renegade’ scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis makes much more sense than the current paradigm, which splits humans and nature into two separate categories.
What time am I in?
It also places sub-tribes of the former over all other humans and nature, with parlous results. Speaking to RNZ in 2016 following the release of his memoir The Blue Touch Paper (2015) the English playwright David Hare said:
“ Well, my life is divided in two, you know. I’m 68 years old, and so for the first half of my life we were all heading in one direction which was towards a National Health Service, it was towards a welfare state, it was towards public education. It was towards the idea that the state could intervene and do good things on behalf of the citizens. And since 1979 in America and in Britain everything has been heading in the opposite direction, namely that the state should butt out, keep out of the way, private enterprise will supply everything, and that people are individuals.
When I was born there was something called the common good and it was understood by all political parties that the job of government was to contribute to the common good. Now the common good is a discredited idea and we’ve simply got maniacal individualism instead, and the results of that we’re seeing in this insane American election with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton representing America.
And so the idea that that first half of my life was inferior, in the way people lived to how things are now, is just crazy, having lived through both halves. Yes, of course culturally things have improved, socially things have improved in terms of sexuality, gender, how people are allowed to behave, how people are allowed to be themselves – yeah, everything is much better – but politically we’ve gone backwards, and I wanted to write about that and correct this myth that everything in Britain was chaos until Margaret Thatcher arrived – it just isn’t true.”
I was very pleased to find someone else (and such a talented someone else) who was also born in the middle of the twentieth century providing such a well-articulated account of the uneasy feeling I had been having for some time – that my life was also being lived in two halves. New Zealand political and social history parallels that of the UK in many ways, and that of other ‘Western’ democracies which had strong labour or social democratic movements and parties in the middle of twentieth century, which instituted the common good policies that Hare refers to.
The socio-political world we were born into – the Trente Glorieuses or Thirty Glorious Years – is well-documented with all the key numbers by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century. It meant that for most of the first forty years of my life there was near-as-free education and hospital care, high levels of home ownership, high levels of employment, and high levels of food security. I never saw beggars on the street, or homeless people sleeping rough, or food banks, let alone queues at food banks ….. and suddenly, there they all were. And it got worse.
Now I’m twenty-seven years into my second forty years, and I have read the key sources for New Zealand and elsewhere on why and how things changed, and what the results were.5 I have also started reading the growing body of evidence which links the economic changes with changes in the climate. As Bruno Latour expressed it in a lecture given to the Harvard School of Design in October 2018: “I am starting from a premise shared with Dipesh Chakrabarty and a few others that what I have called the ‘new climatic regime’ organises the whole of political affiliation. Tell me what you expect from the climate and I will tell you where you stand on all other issues, including the social ones.”
The final piece of the puzzle clicks into place with the understanding that what connects these seemingly disparate elements is the fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet. I spent my first twenty years in the embrace of the social democratic version of that fantasy. In my third decade, I read the literature by individuals and became active in the groups which were expressing compelling doubts about the fantasy and trying to do something to orient people towards reality.6 In my fourth decade the harsh version of the fantasy was imposed upon me, my country, and the rest of the world, with predictably horrible results on human bodies, and on the bodies which form the rest of nature, including other living beings and also entities such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and – most importantly – the climate.
There are new names for these new times. The Anthropocene is one such name. History will determine which name sticks in the end. Meanwhile, those of us who are alive now – and born tomorrow – have some extremely turbulent times to get through. As I do what I need to do with and for those with whom I choose to share a dwelling place, I’ll also be writing about where I want us all to land. For if ever there was a Climate for Change – it is now.
- “One day, I asked my Te Reo tutor what the difference was between a mihimihi and a pepeha. Thus began the biggest existential crisis of my life.” begins Preyanka Gothanayagi’s article in Salient on 18 March 2019. She goes on to explain that a pepeha establishes your ties with your country and your genealogy. In Maori tradition and practice this includes your ancestors, your marae (your turangawaewae or place to stand), your maunga (the tallest hill close to your home marae) and your awa (river or harbour). But what does that means for someone who has no ancestry in Aotearoa, and no marae or other ‘home place’? Indeed. Even someone who is a fourth generation Pakeha New Zealander struggles with that, let alone a recent immigrant. At what point does respectful adoption of the customs of another culture begin, and disrespectful appropriation end? Yet I have no other place to be, and my home place means a lot to me. So finding no such acknowledgement of home place in my British ancestry (it was destroyed centuries ago with the enclosures of land, forests and fisheries, forced industrialisation and mass migration) I look to the traditional culture of this country for the ways it talks about love of home place and the right to stand there. My culture and Maori culture meet at the place where we agree that loving and caring for the home place and its people – all of them, wherever they came from originally – is essential to a good life, and that anything which gets in the way of such loving and caring is to be resisted.
- Latour, Bruno (2018) Down to Earth. Politics in the New Climatic Regime, p. 106
- The rest of this poem can be found on p. 70 of my 1999 Ph.D. thesis, From Earth’s Last Islands: the global origins of Green politics – on line at http://researcharchive.lincoln.ac.nz/handle/10182/1905
- My thoughts on this can be found in Chapter 18 (Losing Ground? Environmental problems and prospects at the beginning of the twenty-first century) in the first edition (2002) of Environmental Histories of New Zealand, edited by Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson and published by Oxford University Press.
- As well as Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century these include (but are by no means limited to!) the following:
Deb, Debal (2009) Beyond Developmentality Constructing Inclusive Freedom and Sustainability
Chang, Ha-Joon (2011) 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism
Coombs, H.C. (1990) The Return of Scarcity Strategies for an Economic Future
Easton, Brian (1997) The Commercialisation of New Zealand
Fleming, Peter (2017) The Death of Homo Economicus Work. Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation
Giridharadas, Anand (2019) Winners Take All The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism
Harvey, David (2014) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism
Hickel, Jason (2018) The Divide A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions
Jesson, Bruce (1999) Only their purpose is mad. The money men take over New Zealand
Keen, Steve (2011) Debunking Economics Revised and Expanded Edition The Naked Emperor Dethroned?
Kelsey, Jane (1997) The New Zealand Experiment A World Model for Structural Adjustment?
Marcal, Katrine (2015) Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? A story about women and economics
Ormerod, Paul (1994) The Death of Economics
Patel, Raj and Moore, Jason (2017) A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet
Polanyi, Karl (2001)  The Great Transformation The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time
Rashbrooke, Max (ed) (2103) Inequality A New Zealand Crisis
Raworth, Kate (2017) Doughnut Economics Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist
Rist, Gilbert (2003) The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith
Roy, Arundhati (2015) Capitalism A Ghost Story
Sandel, Michael J. (2012) What Money Can’t Buy The Moral Limits of Markets
Sassen, Saskia (2014) Expulsions Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
Sayer, Andrew (2016) Why we can’t afford the rich
Standing, Guy (2016) The Corruption of Capitalism Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay
Streeck, Wolfgang (2016) How will capitalism end? Essays on a failing system; and
Varoufakis, Yanis (2017) Talking to My Daughter About the Economy A Brief History of Capitalism
6. The first writings on the limits to growth appeared in the 1960s and were a feature of 1970s ‘alternative’ economic thinking. Major works (in chronological order) included:
Mishan, Edward (1967) The Costs of Economic Growth
Daly, Herman (1971) Toward a Steady State Economy
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971) The entropy law and the economic process
Meadows, Dennis & Donella Meadows(with Jorgen Randers, William Behrens) (1972)
The Limits to Growth. A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind
Schumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is beautiful. A study in economics as if people mattered
Illich, Ivan (1973) Tools for Conviviality
Illich, Ivan (1974) Energy and Equity
Hirsch, Fred (1977) Social Limits to Growth
Mishan, Edward (1977) The Economic Growth Debate An Assessment
Henderson, Hazel (1978) Creating Alternative Futures The End of Economics
Illich, Ivan (1978) The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies