One person’s Utopia is another’s Dystopia
By Anthony Britton, 12 September 2022
Dear reader if you’re having a bad day you may find this article hard to read, it was very hard to write without feeling depressed and without hope.
The Covid-19 pandemic, with the misery, suffering and death this has brought all around the world, has served as an unnecessary diversion from the changes we need to make to deal with climate change so that, for many who see the need for change, there is confusion.
Like my 12 year old grandson, who asked me the other day: “Is it true the human race will become extinct soon?” I can’t say how incredibly sad this made me feel for his future, I nearly cried, though I was careful not to put that on him; rather we discussed the possibility of this and how he felt about it.
But no wonder he asks this question, he’s living in a dystopia.
As a country we spend 32 billion dollars on fossil fuel, and you hear people bleating on about the cost of living, and blaming the Government for this, that notion deceitfully promoted by those politicians who feed the uninformed and disgruntled alike. Yet, considering its profound effect on our lives and the environment, how can we not afford to move away from a dependency on fossil fuels?
At my grandson’s school, like most schools during drop off and pick-up time, massive cars shuffle around like bizarre beasts, not even realizing how intimidating they are, some drivers obsessed about getting within meters of the school gate; while on ridiculously skinny footpaths teachers and pupils move around like cunning rats, worried patrols waving pupils skittering over the zebra crossing; a mass of children and parents dodging each other while tramping up and down the skinny path to school, adjacent to a roomy car park for staff – while in contrast the area for cycles is out of sight and woefully inadequate for safety and protection.
Despite WHO’s advice about the carcinogenic effects of meat, school fund-raisers will still make poor food choices and sell sausage rolls and sausages, and there is often poor understanding of what constitutes nutritious food amongst teachers and parents, never mind dealing with ethical farming in a country that treats animals like produce.
Yet we have incontrovertible evidence that the increasing prevalence of obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, bowel cancer, respiratory problems etc. are tied to lack of exercise, sitting in cars and diet, the current pandemic itself caused by a stressed environment and animal cruelty. As parents, caregivers and educators, how can we not address the root cause of these diseases?
Be the change you’d like the world to be
Ghandi is often quoted as saying, “Be the change you’d like the world to be.”. Not quite in the same league but my friend Darrell, knowing my lifestyle, once said of me, “You won’t live longer, it’ll just feel like it.”. Ignoring Darrell’s laconic humour and instead leaning towards Ghandis’ grander view, while I’m not at all a saint, I strive within the human condition to be the best me I can be.
How I put this into practice is to avoid driving a fossil fuel car and flying as little as possible, I aim to bike everywhere, combining active transport with public transport for longer distance; I don’t drink alcohol; I eat an oil free whole food plant based nutritious health promoting diet and promote cruelty free food; I practice yoga, and passionately support social and environmental justice.
Though the whole is a sum of the parts, and what individuals do does count, for me it is also important to connect with community effort to make meaningful change. At many levels of government we have declared a climate emergency and yet at a local community level we appear to have frozen when it comes to actually doing anything practical to address the emergency.
Why worry, Be happy?
In yoga the fear of death is itemized as an obstacle of happiness, and while deluding ourselves about the inevitably of death may be an evolutionary safeguard that has, rather than facing a miserable depressing dead end, in its stead over aeons of time promoted cognitive functions and reproductive fitness, which in other simpler words is nicely summed in:
In every life we have some trouble,
But when you worry you make it double
In the yoga world, tapas refers to change, svadhyaya refers to self-study and ishvara pranidhana in a religious sense means surrender to the Lord, in a secular way it refers to recognizing those things we cannot change, all of which is nicely summed up in the serenity prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
A simpler way of looking at this to say we have to be smarter than our habits, or failing that at least one step ahead of our habits.
In practice this can perhaps mean being open to reflecting on our habitual responses to people and places, our emotional triggers, and then to be willing to make changes where possible, and finally to find ways to live with that which we cannot change. To be able to know yourself and to live with yourself is the first step to true happiness.
Ki ngā whakaeke haumi
Recently after years of lobbying, the Kāpiti Coast District Council (KCDC) yielded to community pressure about the Te Ara Whareroa cycleway / Poplar Avenue / Matai Road intersection; and they stuck a few poles in the pavement (the very things they’d spent time taking down and confiscating when put there by protesters), painted the road and pavement, and stuck a few more signs up.
But, critically, has it resulted in a change of car driver behaviour? No — despite earlier promises before the cycleway was built, and the two schools in the area; the road is prioritized as a connector road to the Expressway, every second counts! Hence cars are still speeding and from a walker or cyclist perspective, the area can feel desperately unsafe – and that highlights a fundamental problem: bureaucracies most often exist to maintain the status quo – in other words they are not agents of change, rather at a community level they are most often the obstacle to change.
While there is general confusion about climate change, the good news is that confusion is a form of clarity – and what should be clear is that action is required.
In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks on a desert island barely survives. He decides to leave on a raft. He ties himself to it, but then panics as he is leaving the island, there is no turning back. No matter how miserable they make us, often times it’s hard to let go of our habits.
I live in a quiet cul de sac, it is a perfect street to transform into a liveable street. I sounded two of my neighbours out the other week, one asked, a mother of two children, What’s a Liveable Street?, which of course is a good question, and let’s see how that progresses.
I’m hopeful in one way, the Government is asking for feedback on a bill to strip away 50 year old regulations and make it easier for Councils to support local communities to make change, like we could very well do in our street. I’m not hopeful when it comes to KCDC actually doing anything meaningful. It’s well documented that when you do make meaningful changes, there is often a fuss from some die-hards with a vocal self-righteous attitude, nicely expressed by something I read on a local footpath some weeks ago:
To those used to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.
And in my experience, though they are of course all good folk at our local Council, they are in the business of not causing a fuss, they spend a long time consulting and often killing off worthwhile projects — they know how to recognise and deal to the squeaky wheel, they take it off!
Thus perhaps the only way meaningful change will happen region wide, is by the various local councils being amalgamated into a super Council, like Auckland or Christchurch and even Wellington who, judging by the fuss, are trying to make substantive changes.
The other week I was in Whanganui, near Castlecliff beach actually. Walking down Rangiora Street towards the beach, passing a lovely café with excellent plant-based food options, we were amazed to see how they had re-engineered the road; plants planted on the road area naturally meant car drivers had to go slow both ways, which enabled the safety of walkers, cyclists, and children in particular. I’d never thought of Whanganui as a progressive area, many even now stubbornly hold on to the name Wanganui, but I thought, who was behind this change?
Likewise, we visited Bushy Park, just outside Whanganui, a community-based effort to create and maintain a predator free area for birds, specifically the Saddleback, and it was a joy to walk in the bush and see several Saddleback, only numbering around 700 in the total NZ population, not a meter from us.
My friend Darrell, with his laconic humour, commenting on my no-cruelty plant based lifestyle, once called me a traitor to my country; but if we’re serious about a low carbon future, it involves not only conversations around a modal shift towards active transport, it also requires us to have what is to many an uncomfortable conversation about our habitual support of our mistreatment of farmed animals and the associated damage to the environment, and moving away from this towards a healthy wholesome plant diet based on sound nutritional research.
Now more than ever we need leaders who can where possible literally remove roadblocks, to be agents of change, in a very rational and polite way where everyone remains friends.
However, thinking of those who scream loudest at the loss of car parks and other habitual things; to most change is like death – something we prefer to happen to other people, and something each of us would probably rather avoid if not forever, for as long as possible. But like death, climate change and its consequences has its own inevitability: it is beyond culture wars and politics.
As for my grandson and his dire thoughts about the future, I could only give him a big hug, talk through stuff with him, remind him of all the good things he does and how kind and smart he is and say, with people like you in the world, it’ll be OK. Then I say to him, without hypocrisy:
Ki ngā whakaeke haumi: be the leader who can weld diverse groups to effect change for the general good.