Empty Immoral Gestures

I find the end of the school year a tough time when I have been teaching Year 13 classes.  When you have been teaching Year 13 classes you have a real sense of saying goodbye to your students.  There is some kind of thought that you may cross paths with these students again in the future, but the future is an enormous and unpredictable place so – equally – you might not.  On Friday I received some very nice cards from some students, and then sloped off a bit early to go and pick my older daughter up from her school which was also wrapping up for the year on the same day.


Last year I had a student who did research about the Values Party for her history project.  That student’s grandfather had been involved in the very early days of the Values Party in the 1970s.  Although the Values Party was never successful politically it is often seen as the progenitor of the Green Party in New Zealand.  One thing has always stayed with me from that piece of research.  It came in the transcript, near the end of her interview, when her grandfather said that he felt like he had failed his children and grandchildren; that he felt that the environment he had fought for was far, far worse now than it had been when he became politicised about it forty years earlier.

Reading that section of the interview I had to overcome the urge to mentally comfort the good person I was reading about, and just accept their feelings as representing reality.  Environmentally we are far worse off now than we were in the 1970s.  I am not going to recap all the facts that I have been cogitating over the last few posts.  Most people who read this blog, I suspect, are well aware of the problems.  What preoccupies me at the moment is what we do about it: the ensuing calamity of the industrial revolution.

One thing’s for sure: none of these people will be taking us on the paradigm shift we need to confront climate change reality.


Until recently Tim Groser was in Lima at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.  It’s a conference that has not really been covered by the New Zealand media, although there have been some articles in the Herald (generally from other sources).  Before Groser left I think he neatly summarised why the National Party has no plan and no sense of responsibility or leadership on issues of the environment:

Mr Groser said he was taking a “hard line” approach to the talks, saying any deal “will be based on the underlying concepts of the New Zealand proposal or there won’t be a deal”.

The proposal would ensure countries have to set emissions targets, but they would not be legally bound to meet those targets.

Which is one of the age old strategies of all meaningless laws: either there is no punishment, or the criminals police themselves.

Without getting into the detail, the problem is neatly summarised in Groser’s portfolios: Trade and Climate Change Issues.  In that order.  In fact you could say that what Groser actually does is look at Climate Change Issues through the lens of trade.  When you hear Groser talk about climate change he is often (a) incoherent, and (b) actually talking about trade.

“So the problem here is this. China, which is now the world’s largest emitter, although doing very serious things now in this space, is never going to commit to meeting a target and if it fails, be accountable legally for failing to do this. They will, however, do serious stuff. Therefore, the United States, given the Congress, will never agree to a different legal structure to China.”

Got that?

If you reread it and understand it you can see why New Zealand’s strategy would be so popular.  Everyone gets to set targets but it doesn’t matter if anyone meets them.  This keeps America and China happy.  Which is, I think we can all agree, the main thing that is important.  In the end the concerns of the environment aren’t of huge import when it comes to climate change.  The main thing is how will the largest economies in the world be able to legally carry on doing exactly what they were doing before.

Look at the ministers we have fronting the environment and climate change.  We have the minister in charge of using up resources to build more stuff, the minister for building roads and using up (dirty) energy, and the minister for trade globalisation who are also supposedly charged with thinking about the environment and climate change.  (I think Maggie Barry is in there too because she was on a gardening show.)  Their very portfolios are a conflict of interest.

During a brief stop in Lima [at the conference] on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said fixing the problem was “everyone’s responsibility, because it’s the net amount of carbon that matters, not each country’s share.”

The whole thing is a circus.  An expensive, wasteful, polluting circus where people fly in briefly and make pronouncements.  It is really not everyone’s responsibility.  Kerry has confused the word “responsibility” with the word “problem”.  Some people have done almost nothing to contribute but it is still their problem.  What they are waiting for is for the people who are mostly at fault to take some responsibility.  This won’t happen, however, because the negotiators for these countries are people like Tim Groser whose primary objective is trade.

Capitalism is, in fact, the problem.  Once you accept that you realise how hard this is going to be to change, because capitalism is embedded into the fabric of the society’s that pollute the most.  If it’s not obvious that this is the case go for a walk down any suburban street on rubbish collection day.  If you want to add some poignancy take a four year old with you (preferably your own).  You can admire the collective wisdom of a hundred consequence free consumer decisions in the gutters and bus stops and drains.

At the start of the year I went on a school trip to Island Bay, and we had a talk from the Marine Education Trust.  The man who talked to us told us that after a big storm the beach was littered with plastic bottle tops that emptied out of the outlet pipe on to the beach.  It was a pretty depressing piece of information.  A piece of information that continually plays on my mind.  Often when people talk about fossil fuels being bad I think of cars and petrol, but plastic has to be just as bad.

One of the defining moments of the year was reading The Ocean is Broken.  I have since read something along the lines of The Ocean isn’t Broken but I have my doubts about this second article.  Most of these doubts are based on the Pacific gyre.  When I first heard of the massive plastic dump swirling around in the sea I imagined an actual mountain of plastic.  Not so much.  Actually when you sail into the gyre there is nothing to see.  The ocean surface looks like the ocean surface anywhere.  On the other hand if you trawl the gyre you will find that the ocean is actually like this:


“This” is a bottle of water taken from the Pacific gyre which is thousands of kilometres from land.  As disturbing as it looks we need to keep in mind that we also can’t see the millions of plastic particles that are also in this water.  The plastic particles that end up in the fish that we eat.  The Vice News documentary that goes out to the Pacific gyre is not very good, but its final part is pretty clearly horrific.  As the profanity prone narrator of that documentary observes: we have changed the chemical composition of the ocean and that is actually much, much worse than finding a pile of observable plastic floating in the ocean.  It is worse because (a) we have changed the chemical composition of the ocean and (b) there is no sexy image to make people sit up and take notice.

There is a consistent theme among those who have seen the catastrophic effects of capitalism on the Earth first hand: the life that the “developed” countries are living is wrong.  Dead wrong.  There is actually a revolution coming.  It will either be one similar to the one that swept Labour parties to power in the 30s after the Great Depression (only this time it will be Green parties), or it will be a violent revolution borne of desperation in the face of a resistant elite and environmental collapse.  I am personally hoping for the former, but the later looks increasingly likely as summit after summit passes and no deal is made.

Without epoch making change – and let’s not kid ourselves about how hard that is – I will be like my student’s grandfather.  I will be living in an increasingly threadbare and compromised environment knowing that I failed the generations and the planet that I had care over.

In the lead up to our last election Jamie Whyte said that he didn’t want New Zealand to take the lead in climate change policy that – because of our size – would amount to being an empty moral gesture.  Far more preferable I assume to be involved in the empty immoral gesture of attending climate change conferences in bad faith.  We have three more years of these fools, and then they really must go.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō