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climate change

Normality

With towns destroyed, a billion wildlife casualties, a European sized country burnt out and people huddled on beaches as at Dunkirk, the Australian bush fires are maybe the first catastrophic climate event, more dramatic than the slow dying of a coral reef or the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Camping in the countryside south of Motueka, the red afternoon sun seemed like a primitive omen conjured by a witch doctor or pantheistic god.

Faced with this event, the concept of normality disappeared and I was struck by the realisation that despite this disappearance, people will nevertheless, determinedly hold onto the normal.

I was with family at a folk festival, a pleasant and gentle way to see in the new year; people singing around the campfire sort of thing, folk music having been resurrected as part of the sixties’ rebellion against commercialisation, mass production etc. – instead, the pure voice of Joan Baez singing of Mary Hamilton. There was a bush poets session with the recitation of amusing doggerel which sometimes approached the ballad. All very pleasant, but there was an elephant in the room. Could we acknowledge it? Two of us did, feeling like spoil sports.

Kids roll down the bank/ The young man from Rarotonga/Sings of love/The white tent throbs with age/The sky is clear, time is still/The tui is not in danger/White tuft of once was/ Once was/ Dust settles/On modern man.

And that is the issue. To acknowledge a coming apocalyptic age is difficult and everyone, as in a war, seeks normality, even though there is the knowledge that normality is no longer possible.

Except in the ads. The ads become a comfort, for everyone in the ads is happy. All is well. All you need to do is buy this or that and life will be wonderful. Consumption is the answer. We are suddenly at the heart of the matter and at the heart of our inability to make the necessary decisions and make the necessary uncomfortable changes and face up to the realisation that capitalism doesn’t fit the bill. To put it simply, in Aussie, the fire was consuming consumption and the sun was glowing red. Nevertheless, the cruise ship beckons, the new sofa, the new television, the new car, the shampoo, the bathroom cleaner… producing smiling faces and bonny families  All will be well as we hang onto a normality which no longer exists.

The French philosopher, Badiou, believed that a big event can give direction to the complex and diverse evolving multiplicities that make up modern society. I suspect this is not the case for the climate event, which instead, reduces the multiplicities to a singularity: destruction.

The folk music continued: Mary Hamilton went to the tower, we laughed at a funny song about the kiwi bloke and his shed, applauded a skilled performer on the penny whistle, munched a pie in Murchison on the way back. Normality. The Aussie PM pitches to tourists – it’s still okay to visit our natural wonderland, people stitch leg bandages for kangaroos, celebrities donate money, the ads continue…

Normality.

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Photo: BBC.com

Tragedy

We hear the word ‘tragedy’ an awful lot, for it is used to describe most sudden traumatic deaths, from traffic accidents to mine explosions to house fires to tourist disasters such as the recent White Island event.

As a dramatist I can become irritated at the loose use of the word, which, for me, is most valuably associated with a form of drama ‘of elevated theme and diction with unhappy ending’ to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet the OED gives a second meaning: ‘sad event, calamity, serious accident or crime.’ This then, is how the word is generally used and my irritation smacks of snobbery.

I’m faced with a choice: accept the endless, almost daily tragedies, or see if there’s some connection between the two definitions – can the theatre form which comes from the Graeco-Christian tradition, tell us something about the more general use of the word and vice versa?

According to Raymond Williams, who wrote a very good book on the subject, the drama tradition of tragedy began in the theatre of Ancient Greece when three masked characters separated out from the chorus in order to enact ‘the grievous stories of particular ruling families’ as they encountered the vicissitudes of fate and the judgements of the gods. The stories were both myth and a form of history. In the last century the story of the Kennedy family, for a period, had this quality.

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In the Medieval period the tragic story became more about an individual turning aside from contemplation of God and jumping onto the wheel of fortune and being struck down by ‘sin, misgovernance, pride and cruelty’. We have moved from the Kennedys to the Trumps.

Medieval tragedy

Shakespeare explored the tension between the two spaces.

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But with the arrival of the bourgeoisie, the tragic story, writes Williams, becomes more about an individual retaining dignity through a time of suffering caused by moral error, with redemption being possible if that moral error is corrected. Here we could use as an example, the Royal Family and the Diana episode, with a new kind of action, including the idea of poetic justice and the need to restore ethical order and unity after an individual is destroyed. We see the same structure of feeling when people overcome addiction.

18th century

With the late 19th  and 20th  centuries we find a tragic mode which is more opaque, for in this mode, suffering is rooted in the ‘nature’ of man. Suffering is, in fact, normal, evil is all powerful and fate is blind. Ordinary people can do each other the greatest injury because of the ‘cruel and indifferent but also immensely fertile law of nature and life.’ In this world view, nature is all powerful and civilisation is a lie. This is revealed in the turgid tales of the court page but also the horror of the death camps. Faced with this, resignation is the order of the day.

But we are also in the tragic realm of the climate crisis where dissolution and chaos is not an individual or even family fate but an event on a planetary scale with the above belief system leading to the tragic action (or inaction) of denial, with everything reduced to the accidents of blind fate and the only position to take being one of resignation.

In this situation a new tragic story has to be told in order to confront the ‘grievous disorder’ and to find resolution. Enter Greta Thunberg and the climate justice kids, who link the suffering of ordinary people in the developing world and of indigenous people everywhere, to the need for human agency(acknowledging what scientific knowledge is telling us and acting accordingly) and ethical renewal.

SchoolStrike4ClimateIt It is the grandest of tragic tasks and one in which myth and history or myth as history, are key, which is why their small actions resonate so loudly.

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Greta

Late last year I wrote a remake of Waiting for Godot, called Waiting for Greta. The prospect of climate extinction seemed to match the existential angst of Becket’s original (which was perhaps influenced by Hiroshima and the subsequent threat of nuclear holocaust); the Swedish girl had just appeared on the scene and I was impressed by her address to the Climate Change Summit.

Since then, especially since venturing into New York, the heart of the beast, Greta Thunberg has become a prophetic (Naomi Klein’s description) force. Millions of kids have taken to the streets and now workers have been called in to support the movement. She is in the media as much as Trump or Johnson. She addresses parliaments, talks with the Pope, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Obama… and is subjected to the outlandishly intense scrutiny of the modern media and the lunatic babble of social media.

She seems to survive, unphased. Most of the time she gives the floor to her admirers. When in the midst of her peers she seems shy and marginal. Yet when she speaks the message is crystal clear and very repeatable by others of her generation:

  • We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us that the planet is under extreme threat of warming to the point that human life as we know it will be impossible.
  • Young people and future generations will pay the price. The leaders for the last thirty years, despite knowing the situation, have done nothing. The current leaders remain hesitant or are bent on destruction.
  • The least fortunate in the world will suffer most because rich people hang onto their privilege.
  • Continual economic growth is not the answer. The system has to change. Young people need to take to the streets and make that change.
  • No one is too small to make a difference.

There’s been nothing this clear and succinct since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. And the message is being forged, and the movement led, by this prophetic sixteen year old with Asperger’s.

Both the conservative right and the liberal left try and cut her down to size, either by dismissing her as a hysterical, mentally ill teenager, or by patronising her. Conspiracy theories abound. She’s in the employ of a PR firm. What’s the story with her parents? Some adults must be behind this. She’s a communist figurehead…

But then, she herself increased the intensity when she addressed the UN in New York. She took off the mask to show the anger, grief and pain of a generation. It became a poor theatre moment which created a frenzy. ‘She’s hysterical. She’s making young people anxious and suicidal. Why don’t her parents rein her in?’ For politicians don’t do this, nor do adults when in public. They can pretend anger and abuse one another, but only the mad reveal themselves in this way. Yet, in actual fact, she was on script. Here’s a quote from a book, The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of the future, by David Wallace-Wells:

‘Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole. Here the facts are hysterical and the dimensions of the drama  incomprehensibly large – large enough to enclose not just all of present day humanity but all of our possible futures as well.’

Greta suddenly acted out this enormity (and immediately a Death Metal band turned it into a song). The adults are terrified at being called to account. Is this going to be something like Mao’s cultural revolution? The honest ones, like Michael Moore, are willing to admit failure. Obama? – no wonder he wants to be seen shaking her hand.

Greta’s secret of course is her Asperger’s, which means she doesn’t ‘play the social games you folk are so fond of’, to use her words. She’s focused, obsessed perhaps, sees the issue without compromise, doesn’t chat, remains a vulnerable figure physically. Prophetic because in this situation, to quote Wallace-Wells again, ‘there is no analogy to draw on outside of mythology and theology’.

She is also remarkably astute. In a sweet interview with a Swedish talk show host, safe in her language and culture, she talks about her Papa – she won’t let him go shopping in New York, he’s untidy and probably sick of having to follow her around (having to pick her up from the UN rather than the school disco). She will keep assessing the public exposure and withdraw if it gets too much. I’m sure she’ll be capable of disappearing for a while just as effectively as she appeared. And she’ll have a remarkable knowledge of the way the political world works.

So far she has survived the maelstrom of the Empire. After all, it’s nothing compared to what the planet’s going to throw at us. And to copy her in three simple ways would change the world: stop flying, stop stupid shopping and become vegan. Let the whole human race do that, starting tomorrow. Whew! Yet it is possible. That’s the point she’s making.

Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!

The Coast seems to be rehearsing climate change like an amateur theatre group tackling King Lear. ‘Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ etc. Floods, road washouts, bridge collapses, coastlines disappearing, old rubbish dumps exposed and their contents swirling around in the ocean to inevitably come ashore, glaciers receding, and local bodies trying to cope in a fool’s way, without the underlying wisdom of Lear’s capering playmate (‘We’ll set thee to school to an ant…’). Mayors astride bulldozers build walls without consent, asset managers repair sea walls that are washed away in the next king tide, incinerator plants that will bring prosperity disappear at the next meeting of shareholders, economic development managers ride from one stuff up to another with all the reckless thuggery of the sisters’ husbands. Goneril and Regan eye the Provincial Growth Fund, eager for a handout to rearm their troops. And still the denial: Well maybe something’s happening but it’s not human driven, it’s just our old friend, or enemy, Nature. Meanwhile the Chinese watch (‘I smell mortality’), waiting for the signal to come and sort things out.

King Lear, (the old Coast) staggers around pathetically, having rejected his daughter, Solidarity. His voice (the local paper) becomes schizoid. Environmental disasters are pasted next to the latest case of some P addict robbing his mother, an eighty year old publishing her first book of poems rests near inaccessible glaciers, the gala day next to a bridge washout, the school swimming sports next to an exploding sea wall, some nostalgic heritage photos next to Trump and Brexit. No one knows what’s hit them. They’ve all been blinded. What might it mean? Give up coal and oil, air travel, mass tourism, consumerism… spend life groping around in the dark? Ridiculous.

Time ticks on and the fool sings a song of future chaos on a global scale (‘Look, here comes a walking fire’).

Exeunt, with a dead march.

A Christmas greeting

As the level of surveillance increases. I do find it an increasingly medieval world. Not only facebook etc,  but insurance companies and government departments use spies and another US state passes a law which means you lose your job or contract if you participate in the Boycott and Divest movement against Israel, even in the gentlest way – for example by not buying a humus made in Israel. And Congress is about to pass a law making it a criminal offence to boycott Israel, which now becomes a new Holy Land, to be taken from the infidel.

Meanwhile, children are endlessly monitored in their learning, no longer the occasional exam to gauge progress but weekly results reported to the MOE. The 3 Rs have been analysed to the nth degree in terms of stages. The use of metaphor is no longer a discovery, no longer something organic, but taught like a military drill. Thou shalt use metaphor on Wednesday, simile on Friday.

Cargo cults form. Suddenly sports teams take ice baths after games. Very unpleasant it seems, with no evidence of benefit, but it becomes a bonding ritual, this experiencing of pain together. There are often insufficient baths so wheelie bins are commandeered. The mind boggles at the image of the nation’s sports people sitting in wheelie bins packed with ice on a Saturday afternoon. What’s the figure of speech?

In the midst of chaos, Joan of Arc appears in the form of fifteen year old Greta Thumberg, labelled as Aspergic (if that’s a word) because she studied the climate change issue and became depressed that such a crisis could be wilfully ignored. She started to go to parliament and sit on the steps with a placard rather than go to school.  She’s become something of a phenomenon because she tells the truth.

‘…we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.

‘But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.’

Perhaps it will simply mean that Greta has her ten minutes of fame. I hope not. Perhaps all the children of the world will opt out of surveillance and data collection and ice baths and simply overthrow the system in a truly symbolic moment that will not fit the achievement model held by the MOE.

Meanwhile, there are some lovely anticipations of a future world happening, for example, kids going to school on a bike bus. Bike buses might become a universal means of transport. Mary, Joseph and little Jesus, the three wise men and the shepherds all pedalling toward Jerusalem to burn down the US embassy. And the Australian; and the Saudi Arabian, plus the settlements…

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Take care.

National and Climate Change

I went along to a talk by the National Party’s climate change spokesperson, Todd Muller. Todd’s a plausible enough, air brushed bloke from Tauranga.  It was interesting to sit with the Nats with their assumptions of leadership based on supposed pragmatic compromise, designer shirts, polished shoes and good teeth, knowing wives and a venal willingness to sell their souls to the highest bidder.

Todd was here to help Maureen Pugh, the local list MP stir the West Coast pot of populism being created by the local business clique of miners, engineers and trucking companies; with the digger drivers and the farmers hovering. They own the councils and the newspapers and they do some charitable stuff for schools and St John. They go to church occasionally and holiday in Surfers, sometimes Bali, and they know which side their bread is buttered on. A local mythology is being re-energised, of the born and bred West Coaster (like the Aryan) having a genetic virtue; of there having been a golden time of economic boom created by extraction and now destroyed by the Greens (Jews) helped by a Labour government captured by Aucklanders and urban parasites more generally. Maureen Pugh actually spoke of dogs barking when a property is trespassed upon. ‘We’ll keep barking,’ she said. Unfortunately the metaphor has some problematic connotations: runaway slaves were chased by dogs, the SS were also into dogs. As for Abu Ghraib…

The local business cartel used to be balanced by the miners and their unions, plus a level of state ownership of economic infrastructure. But that’s gone. Only the Greens have unpragmatic ethics and they’re hated for that reason. The urban-based, identity-politics liberals led by Jacinda have seized power and the regions will get rid of them as fast as they can.  But then there’s Winston and Shane Jones, the other side of the populist coin, confusing things.

As well there’s the really big boy capitalists in the cities (and operating globally) who can sense the chaos that could ensue if the climate is not ameliorated, the smashing of infrastructure past profitable repair, the mad rush of refugees…; so there is tension between the feudal overlords and the local squirocracy. I am sure there’s historical precedence, somewhere around the time of Oliver Cromwell. It’s all very complex, messy and potentially dangerous. Out of these tensions, Trump arises.

Meanwhile an article sent to me by a fellow conspirator at the meeting, Richard Arlidge, describing the period when climate change might have been effectively tackled: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/01/magazine/climate-change-losing-earth.html

 

 

A strange evening

I was called to a person said to be having a heart episode at the camping ground in the small coastal settlement of Rapahoe, north of Runanga. But upon arrival, the elderly couple who manage the site knew nothing about it and there were no obvious candidates in sight. It’s a small camping ground nestled in bush. I went down to the beach, a rock strewn part of the Coast but one of the few spots safe for swimming. People were dotted along the shore but no one in trouble. A couple crouched over a small driftwood fire, forming a primitive image in the fading light.

Searching for a foreign person having a possible heart attack is a strange activity. I went to the motel and the manager was excited by the possible drama but had no guests in difficulty. I tried the pub but it was deserted apart from two elderly  locals. The puzzle remained. I went to the other end of the beach, across the river and the place where I occasionally go for a summer swim. No sign of life. Or death for that matter.

But meanwhile I had become aware of the small clusters of tourists dotted through the settlement for the night, like a band of nomads, off hunting and gathering in family groups during the day and then coming together as a band, that most primitive of human social structures, at night, for protection and sharing of food.

Rapahoe is vulnerable to climate change and the consequent rising seas and extreme weather events. It was recently inundated by Cyclone Gita and the erosion is serious. A sea wall might provide a temporary respite but is expensive and the few ratepayers can’t afford it. It could well disappear.

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As night fell, wandering through the vulnerable settlement searching for a tourist in need, I could imagine the future chaos of climate change, of people returning to a much less structured existence, of disparate bands wandering the Coast in an eco-fiction world where nature is teaching the human species (and unfortunately other species as well), a drastic lesson.

Ironic that the locals in this small community have erected a monument celebrating its coal mining past, a display that features two of the machines that used to operate at the now flooded Spring Creek mine, digging out the coal, the fossil fuel that enabled the industrial revolution but which has  helped cause the planet’s eco systems to become volatile once more.

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I never found the tourist in need. A work of fiction might have them lying in a cave, or washed out to sea, but most probably they recovered and drove off to Greymouth. All that remains is the digital trace of a phone call to the emergency services.

The wind blew strongly as night fell and I headed home.

 

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