Hope is not a four-letter word

Ursula Le Guin – purveyor of hope

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(photograph from The New Yorker)

This week I read the sad news that Ursula Le Guin had died.  She is possibly my favourite author.  Her books, both children’s and adult, confront ugly social or personal situations brought about by the misuse of power, and they all convey hope that these can be overcome.  And they are beautifully written.

I have a much-read and tattered paperback copy of “The Dispossessed”, bought not long after it was originally published in 1974.  There are quotes from it throughout “A New Place to Stand”, because it has been my personal beacon of hope for many years.

The book describes an isolated anarchist society under threat from within.  It follows the life of Shevek, a physicist, who leaves to seek ideas and possibilities in a wealthier capitalist society that to other eyes “comes as close as any to Paradise”.  But he returns to the struggle in his own society with the realisation that they (both his society AND the struggle) offer far more to the human spirit, that the wealthier society is nothing more than pretty wrapping paper round ugly realities of inequality and oppression.

So here I am, sitting in “Paradise” (it’s another beautiful day here, by the way).  Knowing that, while it has many attractive attributes, it is poisoned, and it is poisonous.  And wondering how I can convey the idea that there is hope we can change the poisonous extractivist, individualist, and consumerist behaviours and trends in our society, and consequently stop poisoning our living environment.

Alan AtKisson – believer in prophecies

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Alan AtKisson is a man who can convey hope far better than I can.  This is a man who usually sings much more optimistic songs than “Dead Planet Blues” as an introduction to workshops he runs on how to avoid killing our planet.

His first book, “Believing Cassandra” , puts forward the proposition that if you believe in the prophecies of doom and act on them, you can prevent them.  Cassandra’s curse was that no-one would listen to her prophecies, and so they came true.

Here are some of his words of hope, “In a mere few centuries, with far fewer people, using very primitive technology, we have managed to create a huge, sprawling mess of a World, displacing much of Nature in the process. This tragic yet undeniably enormous accomplishment supplies the proof that we have the capacity to create – with similar speed, and at a similarly large scale – a bountiful and more sustainable World.”

After outlining the scale of the problems, the book focusses on how to become sustainable, and how to act as change agents towards a more sustainable society and planet.  “There are millions of people who are ready, with support and encouragement, to become Innovators, Change Agents and Transformers for sustainability, in every walk of life. People like us. Moreover, a boundless number of innovations already exist that promote sustainability…”

His next book, “The Sustainability Transformation”, goes into more detail about effective approaches and roles for making change. And it points out that, “What may look like a sudden shift – the Berlin Wall comes down – is in fact the climax of a long and gradual process, one that has largely happened at the periphery and far removed from the centres of power.”

There is momentum out there for change – there are many people working on it.  But it is not very visible in the mainstream.  Our hope is that this “long and gradual process” will indeed take deep root, and shift our mainstream direction in time to both avoid total catastrophe, and also effectively manage the challenges that are already inevitable, such as the impacts of a warmer atmosphere and higher sea levels.

The Sunday Star Times – giving mainstream visibility

Less than three years ago, when I started writing “A New Place to Stand”, the negative impacts of affluent society behaviour were much less visible in New Zealand mainstream media.  Climate change scepticism got as much if not more space than climate change knowledge; economic growth under a capitalist model was so central an assumption that it was largely invisible; and no connections were made between “news-worthy” environmental, social and economic events and their causes, often rooted in the early impacts of climate change, or overuse and abuse of our land and water.

While there hasn’t exactly been a sea-change, there is now more space given to these deep issues.  Human-caused climate change is more accepted, and there are more stories both about the difficulties already being created by such issues as water use and waste, and also about initiatives being taken to deal with them.

Last Sunday’s New Zealand “Sunday Star Times” was notable for the number of stories directly linked to the deep issues.

On the negative side, ” Our rubbish Asia’s problem” was a two page cover story in the Business section.  It highlighted New Zealand’s growing problem with recycling plastic, most of which is sent to Asia for processing.  China’s recent ban on many plastics is making this more difficult, and New Zealand’s new government is now looking at how to incentivise companies to do more processing onshore.

“Action looms on e-waste” noted that Australia and New Zealand together producing the highest volumes of e-waste in the world, and among the lowest documented rates for recycling.  New Zealand is also one of the few “developed” countries not to have any laws to manage e-waste.  But the new government is apparently onto it, looking at options for upping our game on it.  Let’s hope.

Neither article canvassed the question of prevention – using less or no plastic, cradle to grave management of manufactured goods.  These are the truly sustainable ways forward.  But at least they highlighted the fact that we have problems.

A Brief noted that bleaching has already begun on the Great Barrier Reef, much earlier in the season than usual, after the 2016-17 seasons had already killed about half the reef’s coral.  Just a paragraph on that.  The hope came later in the week from an announcement that the Australian Government would put major funding into trying to arrest the bleaching[i].

Moving to the more positive side, and on a lighter note, “Royals go green…” (page B11) discussed Royal Warrants in the UK.  Companies which receive these Warrants are, and can advertise themselves as, official suppliers to the Queen and the Royal family.  Until they get a bit naughty – the official bra-supplier published a memoir “Storm in a D-Cup”, and her company promptly had its Warrant withdrawn.

Warrants are being given to greener companies than previously, undoubtedly through the influence of Prince Charles.  Out with the chemical giant Bayer, in with Chase Organics, and so on.  Jolly good show.

Another jolly good chap is featured in “Pope brings green crusade to the Amazon” (page B11).  Pope Francis continues his battle against the despoilation of the planet, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the rapacious behaviours of profit-seeking corporations, and and the refusal of world leaders to act fast enough on all of this.  This man is one of our true world leaders, and brings hope wherever he goes.  For the record, I am not a Catholic.

From a very different background, Laurence Fink, the chairman of BlackRock (apparently the world’s largest money manager, with $US6.2 trillion in investments), has announced he will double the size of BlackRock’s team that tries to get companies to show more social purpose.  “Do good for society, CEOs” notes that Fink’s annual letter to 1,000 CEOs flagged issues such as the role companies play in their communities, preparation of the workforce for a more automated future, the growing gap between the capital-rich and the rest of society, and the need for the private sector to engage more vigorously with climate change.  As a commentator pointed out, the impact will depend on how much “muscle” BlackRock actually puts behind these demands.

And finally, a couple of stories about city living.  “Future proof our cities” looks at the prospects for New Zealand becoming a leader in creating sustainable cities.  The article only skims the surface, and does not acknowledge the great work already being done in some of the world’s major cities, for example by the “C40” group.  But while nation states fumble with the issues, cities are taking action to try and create some sort of sustainable future, as they are having to cope with frontline issues such as transport and supply, overcrowding, and the impacts of extreme weather events.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the cover story for the “Escape” section.  “Bare feet & busking” looks at the revival of Medellin, until recently a home for major drug traffickers and “one of the most dangerous cities on Earth”.  This revival was enabled mainly by setting up an outstanding public transport system which linked the disparate parts of the city.  As AtKisson says, humans have an amazing capacity for rapid recovery and innovation.

Small pebbles in the pond, maybe, but I hope that the number of articles, and the range of topics covered, give you some hope, as they do me, that there are real things happening, and being noticed in the mainstream.  These may coalesce and change our overall direction in time to avoid the worst effects of runaway climate change, despoilation of the land by industrial agriculture, overfishing of the oceans, and increasing social inequality causing increasing social instability.

Hope is not a four-letter word – I hope.


[i] “Australia digs deep to save Barrier Reef”, Dominion Post 24 January 2018

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