My opposition to our current, deliberately broken economic system is not ideological. It is moral.
I oppose it because it is wrong.
It’s hard to talk about the future. The future has that wonderful quality of being completely unknowable and somewhat predictable at the same time. Describing the future accurately and teaching people how to prepare for it is a high wire act; get it wrong enough times and you’ll be sweeping out the elephant’s quarters, but get it right and they’ll put you in charge of the whole circus.
On Friday we had a Teacher Only Day where six secondary schools gathered at Wellington College to hear a keynote speaker, and then divided up and went to smaller presentations about a range of topics related to the business of teaching. While the day was good overall, it didn’t start well. I realised, as the key-note speaker took the stage, that I had already watched some of his clips on-line and really just fundamentally disagreed with his view of the future. That’s the other thing about the future: it’s contestable.
“We love jargon in education, don’t we?” he began. Love? I’ve never heard anyone who is a regular teacher willingly use the words pedagogy, 21st century learning, or future-focused. Keynote went on to quote Sugata Mitra and Tony Wagner, two men I have limited time for. In their fantasy world everyone has a device, curiousity and a goal. “I can literally be walking down the street skyping an expert on the other side of the world with my questions” keynote told us. I’m really not sure that there are field-leading experts queuing up in Europe to take our calls at 2am. That aside, the tales of students teaching themselves how to build a space capsule in Tongan, or whatever, are always about things like building space capsules and never about them considering the true nature of justice, or humanity’s place in the cosmos. What we want, after all, is more cool stuff, that way we can pump it into the market and make a buck. We want breakthrough, we want innovation, we want gifted communicators, team-playing their way to success. You know, like Emily Dickinson.
The middle of keynote’s presentation kind of encapsulated my dislike of his approach, because he spent so long on what the future of the job market might look like (“who knows!” … “the jobs don’t exist yet!”), and how schools need to prepare students for that by teaching the top skills that employers had identified as important. Keynote wanted to tell us about Google’s self-driving car and how taxi drivers would all be out of a job, and the automated truck and how all truck drivers would be out of a job (“3 million truck drivers in America!”). “Not doing well in school,” he told us, “is not going to be an option anymore because those jobs won’t be there any more.” Not going to be an option? Seeing as how some people always don’t do well at school I wonder what he means. Part of me thinks that we should not perhaps just let jobs go because technology dictates it, but then the rational part of my brain knows that technology has always gone hand in hand with capitalism from the time of enclosure, and that capitalism – in this worldview – is more important than human dignity or the environment.
As a friend of mine said afterwards: “it just made me feel sad for all those taxi drivers.” It’s a long line of things to be sad about.
To be frank, things haven’t been that flash around here recently. There’s been a feeling of compassion and humour in retreat. A set of people I like have signed off. None of them were my heroes or anything, and sometimes they annoyed me, but I liked them as a general principle and was happy they were around. I had no idea that Clive James was dying, for example, and quite quickly after I learned this fact I saw Letterman and then John Campbell going off air. Watching Letterman again reminded me of Robin Williams because it was on Letterman that I realised that Williams’ true gift was not with a script, but live, where “the chaotic clarity… lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder” (Brand, of course, wrote that, and filmed this). Meanwhile, the leaves come off the trees, and it’s cold, and the rubbish accumulates in the streets, in the gutters and drains, while the bus stops advertise Dancing With the Stars, and a multi-million dollar campaign to change a flag.
I imagine getting arrested for doing this to all the ads I can find:
But then I think I need to keep my job. And some kind of sense of humour.
Which is tricky when you’re reading Clive James, although he seems to have kept his. His future is very narrow, but his final poems are very clear, and it is this poem that most moves me, particularly the end,
It is salutary and sad for the atheist to note “that it is here we live or else nowhere”, but it is far more resonant for an observer of the planet as a whole to regard that final stanza as not being about Clive James, but the world we live in. Go on, go up and read it again, as if Clive were a biblical prophet describing the end of the world.
Some people think that atheism is destructive, and leads to nihilism and anarchy. I’ve never understood that. Just as religion can sharpen people’s sense of why they are here, so can atheism. When a religious person talks about what they think the world should look like it almost always agrees with what I think. It’s when we get to the why, and the wherefore that we hold different views. Martin Luther King, Jnr., for example, spoke about the ways America needed to restructure itself in 1967 when he spoke against the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly it was about becoming a society that was people orientated, and not thing orientated. It didn’t go down well outside the meeting hall he spoke in, but like most speeches by King and Bobby Kennedy they resonate now, and have the air of Isaiah, or Cassandra.
Yesterday James Shaw was announced as the co-leader of the Green Party. Standing in Bar Bodega on election night 2014 was probably the best place to be for someone who supports the left. It was a pretty poor night otherwise but in Bodega at least James was being elected to parliament. After that came his maiden speech, and his first questions in the house, and then the quite surprising news that he was going to run for the co-leader position. Standing in Bodega late in 2014 no prognosticator would have picked that in May of 2015 he would actually be the co-leader. The future has, remember, that wonderful quality of being completely unknowable and somewhat predictable at the same time.
If you want to know what the future actually looks like you could read the last IPCC report which tries to predict the future of our planet using all kinds of precisely worked out qualifiers: “virtually certain 99–100% probability, very likely 90–100%, likely 66–100%…”. It is a report that finds it extremely likely (95-100%) that human actions have caused climate change, and that is confident to highly confident of increased flooding, droughts, cyclones, wildfires, and heatwaves. It is also a report that states that:
Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.
There is no greater challenge for humanity and all life on the planet than this, and the report is clear about solutions:
Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change. Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.
Only one political party in New Zealand appears to understand this. Like the Great Depression drove Labour to relevance and then power, climate change is giving the Green Party its place. We are rodeo-ing a broken system into the apocalypse and “encouraging” people to buy sustainably-sourced cowboy hats as they plunge into the inferno. It’s not about buying organic potatoes every now and then; its more radical than that.
The inequalities within our own society are mirrored across the globe between countries, and it is not surprising that the elite in that structure can’t agree about how to fix the problem they have created. They have the most resources to mitigate the damage, and the costs are always externalised elsewhere. They seem to forget that it is on Earth we live or else nowhere, and that a system that fails to adapt to radically new situations will either have to alter, and at speed, or kill the basis on which it was built and then the people it served.
One of the least attractive qualities of our current global system is that it is diffuse, and disempowering. Picking up bag after bag of rubbish from the park and receiving letters from the Minister for the Environment about business-led voluntary standards for packaging encourages you to give up, or write sad little poems about what once was. It was James who told me, a long time ago, that the only real way to get change was through legislation. It’s not something that you expect a 20-year-old to tell you, but he was right then and he is right now.
We can either go on into the increasingly challenging century as passive victims of a system we created but then let slip the leash, or we can oppose it where it is immoral, and act for true justice for the environment and its peoples. I think that James understands this, and that the Green Party have made a very, very good choice in him as co-leader.
Well done, bro.