Bonfire of the Vanities

Cassandra, whom her own God had ruled no Trojan should believe, let her lips utter once again the truth of what destiny had in store.

Aeneid, Book II

I read a news story on the RNZ news site yesterday that made me switch off the computer and go outside.  I needed to go and look at the magnolia in blossom.  To smell the wood smoke and the perfume of early spring flowers.  I think in the past I would have gotten angry, but I feel resigned now.  The anger is still there but it dissipates quickly and leaves just an emptiness.  The articles was about a new announcement by the National Party.

At an event in Auckland today the opposition party released a discussion document on its economic policies coming into an election year….

They’re… sticking to previous promises of repealing the regional fuel tax and the ban on oil and gas exploration, [and] overhauling the Resource Management Act….  The coalition government shifted transport infrastructure focus from roading to public transport and rail, but National would be changing the focus back to roading.


They also want a regulations bonfire.

Fire is a useful image for this because eliminating regulation, and focusing on short term economic gains at the expense of the environment is having clear consequences at the moment in another country where the Amazon is on fire.

I know that most people would read the story on the RNZ website and quickly move on, but it pushes me into a sadness.  With the impacts of our actions on the environment so clear now it seems like some sick joke that someone would announce that they want to make petrol cheaper, drill for oil, make it easier to use land for development, and build more roads.  It reminds me of that cartoon gag that shows a person sawing off the very branch they are sitting on.

There is a very pernicious idea underpinning this: that business needs to be free.  If business is free – this idea goes – then it will lead to economic growth.  But this is not a good idea because a business freed of regulation is one that does not need to concern itself with where its materials come from, how its products are made, how its workers are treated, how safe its products are, or what waste it produces.  Business freed of regulation can continue to make things like cigarettes or – when regulated – find new ways to sell cigarettes and target Māori and the poor.  Business freed of responsibility for public good can undermine public transport for all with unregulated ride shares or e-scooters that only the able-bodied can access.


It happens that I am tired of being a man.

It happens that I go into the tailors’ shops and the movies

all shriveled up, impenetrable, like a felt swan

navigating on a water of origin and ash.

Walking Around, Pablo Neruda

I’ve been tired of men for a long time.  Tired of myself too.  So much of the news is dominated by them: vain, egotistical, and fragile, they come to us, elite and privileged, to perpetuate the systems that are killing us all.  The fires in the Amazon reveal a lot about these men:

A Bolsonaro supporter posted: “Now you understand why Macron is persecuting Bolsonaro?” next to an unflattering picture of Brigitte Macron, 65, who is 28 years older than Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle. Bolsonaro himself replied on Facebook: “Do not humiliate the guy, ha ha.”

“Macron cannot even avoid a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site,” Lorenzoni said.  “What does he intend to teach our country?  Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron.”

This amounts to nothing more sensible than what you would expect from the hurt, bruised ego of a six year old lashing out at everyone around them.

All of it is nonsense.  None of it makes sense.  Take the last claim: “Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practice”.  The nation of Brazil is a  construction of imperialist practices that still benefits the descendants of the imperialists while marginalising the indigenous populations and destroying their homelands.  In fact, the Amazon is an exact area where imperialism is being carried out right now by the Brazilian government.

They joke about each others wives hoping we do not see.


Brazil won international kudos… by slowing deforestation by 80% between 2005 and 2014. This was done with strict monitoring, better policing and stiffer penalties.

The Guardian

In other words: regulation was saving the Amazon, and the removal of regulation is destroying it again.  Regulations.  Those things that National want to put on a bonfire.

It couldn’t be a more apt metaphor, but it gives me no joy.  It doesn’t even make me smile: the aptness of the metaphor.  It is our small local example of the bigger picture.  Our small version of the men around the world tearing everything apart, sparring on social media, affecting offence, jeering and colluding in a sham.

With these men at the levers of power we are doomed.  Utterly.  And the forecasts keep shortening.  Such a shame for us but more so for all the other wondrous life we had the arrogance and complacency to sacrifice to the lifestyles of a minority.  When we look back on it will an image of me – a white man from a wealthy country – suffice as a symbol, as a cipher for the disease that wiped out life on Earth?

As the climate collapse escalates, as our policy path remains unchecked, we find ourselves with narrow-minded, bigoted leaders – mostly men – and social media systems that exacerbate pettiness and spite and rewards divisiveness.  The consequence for all will truly be a bonfire of the vanities.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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