I was born in New Zealand in 1951, and spent most of my working life in the public sector, as a teacher, auditor, and manager. I worked in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. My formal qualifications are an MA (Hons 1) in English Literature, a Diploma of Teaching, and a (post-graduate) Diploma of Accountancy.
For more detail about my home, New Zealand, and my own personal journey of discovery, read on…..
The privilege of being born a New Zealander
…when things are lookin’ really bad
And you’re thinking of givin’ it away
Remember New Zealand’s a cracker
And I reckon come what may
If things get appallingly bad
And we’re all under constant attack
Remember we want to see good clean ball*
And for God’s sake feed your backs*
We don’t know how fortunate we are to have that place
We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick
We don’t know how lucky we are.
“We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are”
(Fred Dagg, aka John Clarke)
* These two lines refer to New Zealand’s “national” sport, rugby football.
Yes, while the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that means), my home country New Zealand’s biggest concern will be whether the All Blacks might lose their next Rugby test match.
I was born in 1951, to professional parents in the regional town of Wanganui, at the beginning of a period of rapidly increasing affluence. My education, up to and including degrees in English Literature and in Accounting, was largely paid for by the State. And my working life has been mostly in the public sector, in New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
So, I’ve lived a privileged life, and I am the first to acknowledge that this has been largely a matter of luck – in where and when I was born, and to whom.
I was particularly lucky to live in New Zealand as a child and young man. That period from about 1950 to 1974, when the first oil shock hit, may have been a golden age in some respects. Despite losing many of its best and brightest men in the Second World War, New Zealand was an economically egalitarian, fully employed, and increasingly well-educated country.
Like the United States, we had been able to send our people to war rather than fight at home, so did not have to rebuild infrastructure as a priority after World War II. And the wealth gained from our exports, and the work of an outstanding group of public sector executives from the late 1950s to the 1970s, enabled us to carry through the promise of the radical social democratic Labour Government of the late 1930s.
My generation had, to all intents, free health care, free education to tertiary level (and even then, 90% subsidised), and easy entry to a fully employed workforce, in a smorgasbord of agricultural, manufacturing and service industries. And public entities like the Ministry of Works and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research made large and effective investments in infrastructure and in science.
It was, like many other wealthy countries of the time, a repressive society in terms of gender and race – women were expected to be homemakers (nursing and teaching were respectable professions until you married), and Maori coming to the cities in the 1950s began to form the base of an urban underclass which is substantially larger today.
But it was built on a foundation of democracy and egalitarianism that stretched back to the mid-1800s.
The formation of four Maori seats in Parliament in 1867 meant that New Zealand achieved universal male suffrage well before Europe (although white society was still in the business of confiscating and privatising land for their own benefit, at the expense of Maori communal ownership). And New Zealand was the first country in the world where women won the right to vote, in 1893.
Maori, while remaining at the bottom of the social statistics in most ways, were still a visible element of mainstream society, and their war and sports heroes were celebrated. Various efforts at restitution and redress have culminated in the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, and a “settlement process” begun in the early 1990s which seeks to provide stronger economic and ownership bases for Maori communities.
Women in New Zealand have a long history of activism and “firsts”, up to and including the modern women’s liberation/feminist movements. But it still shocks me to look back and realise that the “Girls Can Do Anything” campaign reached its height only in the mid-1980s – only thirty years ago, and also just at the moment the empire of the wealthy was beginning to strike back.
Religious freedom is pretty much the norm in New Zealand, and non-heterosexual orientations and behaviours are better accepted than in many countries. The flamboyant cross-dresser Carmen was a fixture in Wellington for many years from the 1960s, and Georgina Beyer was the world’s first trans-sexual Mayor in the 1990s, and subsequently the world’s first trans-sexual Member of Parliament. However, while the dominant All Black centre Ma’a Nonu has displayed good style in wearing eye make-up, I don’t think we’ve yet had our first openly homosexual All Black.
So, on the social front, New Zealand is one of the more open and accepting communities. There are still ugly and repressive attitudes, and these are inflamed by our politicians at will. But, overall, New Zealand society is pretty tolerant. And it has one of the least corrupt governance regimes in the world – Transparency International regularly rates it in the top three countries in the world in terms of lack of public corruption.
However, there are now serious pressures on all of this, as a result of New Zealand’s shift from being an economically egalitarian society. Before the mid-1980s, it was among one of the most economically equal of all countries, as measured for example by the Gini Index. New Zealand has now moved from being among the most economically equal of OECD countries to being in the upper half of inequality, and has shifted its levels and ranking on economic inequality more than most other affluent countries.
Like its main English speaking Commonwealth cousins (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), New Zealand was caught up in the profiteering madness of the last 30 years. The Labour Government of 1984-1990 pushed through radical pro-market, pro-private sector, open economy reforms (this was called “Rogernomics”, after its main architect Roger Douglas). The National Government which followed from 1990-1998 gutted the welfare system (“Ruthanasia”, after Ruth Richardson).
Full employment has gone, unions have been marginalised, many public assets have been privatised and asset-stripped, and the borders have been opened to trade – New Zealand has one of the most open trade borders in the world.
This last resulted in the destruction of New Zealand’s manufacturing base, the loss of many trade jobs and skills, and continuing over-reliance on agricultural commodities. New Zealand’s development of a “value-add” capacity on top of its strong agricultural base was seriously set back by the reforms of the late 1980s.
Subsequent governments have entrenched these reforms.
On the species survival front, the previous government (till November 2017) pretty much denied climate change, and supported growth of industrial agriculture. New Zealand’s agricultural and forestry industries are mainly monoculture and commodity-based. They are degrading larger and larger areas of naturally fertile or naturally diverse or necessarily sparse land.
Under both major political parties, New Zealand has missed two major and obvious economic opportunities over the last thirty years. The first was to diversify our economic base by adding value to agricultural and forestry products. We still export these primarily as raw commodities, just like the poor world.
The second missed opportunity was to capitalise on New Zealand’s “clean, green” image by actually going clean and green. We had the chance to lead the world in sustainable economic and social practices, but neither our governments nor our corporate sector seemed to have the will or the capacity to take that chance.
And under the pressure of the last 30 years of changes, our society in New Zealand is beginning to lose some of those underlying virtues of egalitarianism and tolerance. Or maybe those virtues are being warped. If “tall poppy syndrome” was a curse of the old egalitarian society, cyber-bullying, celebrity-chasing-and-bashing, and more overt racism are becoming a curse of the emerging unequal society.
So, my final word on New Zealand. As a physical environment, it remains a great lifeboat for some small proportion of humanity – isolated, built on a spine of mountains, with plenty of water (at least on the West Coast), and capacity to feed itself and then some (although this capacity is steadily being degraded). But as a social environment, its history of egalitarianism and tolerance is gradually succumbing to the disease of social Darwinism which has put humanity at such grave risk. So we may not be able to make very good use of the lifeboat when we need it.
I will expand on some of the points above, and use further examples from New Zealand (as well as other locations and societies) throughout the book.
My own journey of discovery
I’ve been baffled by humanity – including myself – for most of my adult life.
I was politically active as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the end of a period of huge activism in the West. We mainly protested the Vietnam War and “All White” tours to and from South Africa involving our national rugby team, the All Blacks. This ended with massive civil disobedience during the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. And the oppression of women, black, and indigenous people, including New Zealand’s Maori, became more obvious to us.
I studied the greatest English satirist of all, Jonathan Swift, for my Masters’ Degree, and two of his pieces profoundly affected me.
Many people are familiar with the first Book of Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, the voyage to the land of Lilliput. The second Book is about Gulliver’s travels in the land of giants, Brobdingnag. Brobdingnag is a rural and peaceful society, in contrast to the urban and warlike Lilliputians, but Gulliver’s view of them is tainted by their apparent grossness of flesh – whereas the tiny Lilliputians appeared perfectly formed, and therefore more “civilised” to him – a beautiful example of the problems of perspective and appearance!
At the end of Book Two, the King of Brobdingnag asks Gulliver to describe the current state of England, which he does with pride – the Parliament, the Courts of Justice, the pastimes, and “the affairs and events of England for about an hundred years past”. The King quizzes him in depth about this, exposing the venality, corruption, and violence of both public and private life, and concludes by saying to Gulliver:
“…I am well disposed to hope you may have hitherto escaped many vices of your country. But, by what I have gathered from your relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth (my underlining).”
I have quoted this conclusion frequently, and with relish, throughout my adult life, when discussing the strange world of human behaviour, particularly at political and corporate levels. I’ve been quite conscious that my joy in this quotation probably comes from some sort of self-loathing, related to my own imperfections and projected onto the rest of humanity. But I’ve retained my naïve views, that:
killing people is almost always evil;
leaving people to go hungry when there’s enough food to go round is evil at worst and incompetent at best; and
accumulating and retaining large amounts of wealth, particularly through rorting[i] tax systems and/or while others go hungry is, if not completely evil, at least undesirable.
Recently, I’ve added to this list the undesirability of encouraging people to act out publicly and expose themselves to ridicule in the guise of presenting “reality” on television, the Internet, and social media in general.
And here I am, surrounded and besieged by images of killing, poverty and hunger, conspicuous wealth, and bizarre behaviour.
Yet I live in a comfortable and peaceful community which bears little resemblance to the strange, violent and raucous world described in the mass media. I know I’m lucky in where I live and who I am, but I also know that, in the affluent world at least, the images we are given of “life” do not reflect its reality for us – most of the time.
The second Swift piece which had a profound influence on me was “A Modest Proposal”, written in 1729.
It suggests that the Irish poor should sell their babies and young children to the rich as food. Most of the text consists of calm and apparently rational calculations of the options and pricing for this suggestion. But Swift’s rage and despair at the absence of common sense, rationality and humane behaviour in his society becomes obvious at the end. He lists a set of mostly straightforward proposals for local production, taxation, thrift, honesty, and humane behaviour, and then writes:
“…let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he hath a glimpse of hope that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.”
He then reverts to his earlier (“rational”) persona, summarises the economic and social desirability of child cannibalism, and concludes:
“…I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich (his italics). I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing”.
On reflection, much of what has happened in the economic and social sphere over the last thirty years looks suspiciously like child cannibalism to me – while we haven’t actually eaten our children, we’ve certainly eaten a large part of their future.
As discussed in the previous chapter, humanity is seemingly ineffective in addressing the rapid degradation of our environment through over-consumption, which has been an obvious threat for at least the last 30 years. The human race now consumes about one and a half times the resources our Earth can regenerate each year, and this over-consumption is growing rapidly[ii]. And we are pumping more carbon into the atmosphere than is safe for us, and for life in general.
As Al Gore writes at the end of “Our Choice”[iii], in a few years the new generation will ask one of two questions, “What were you thinking?” or “How do you find the moral courage to…solve [the] crisis?”
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about solving our current crisis, but the numbers relating to degradation of the atmosphere, the land, and the water continue their inexorable rise.
Why am I letting this happen? And why are my fellow citizens letting this happen? And why do the many movements which try to act on this seem to be ineffective against the juggernaut of over-consumption?
Is it just because “that’s the way it is?” Or that humanity has a suicide wish? Or, as I have comforted myself with over the years, “It’s all THEIR fault – the ones in power”.
Since finishing paid work, I’ve given myself the opportunity to pursue these questions more carefully. This book is the result of that research.
And I am very aware of the position of privilege from which I have been asking these questions. I am open to the charge of hypocrisy, for continuing to be a wealthy consumer while I question over-consumption.
I’m fine about reducing my consumption. But I don’t want to do it alone. It should be as part of a pact with my friends, neighbours and fellow citizens. This means it will not only be easier, as we share the burden, but also more effective, as more of us reduce our consumption.
Here’s the thing: I have a flicker of optimism about our ability to live better lives. But the only way to break out of the cycle of over-consumption in the affluent world, and massively unequal distribution to the poor world, is by changing our habits, and by the redistribution and equalisation of power.
This book is aimed mainly at those of my fellow-citizens (including myself) in the affluent countries who find ourselves uncertain about what the real state and future of our world are, or about our ability to do anything useful in the face of seemingly unstoppable progress in the wrong direction, or about what action we might take to improve things.
I call us, probably a bit unfairly, “fence-sitters”. The main aims of the book are to help us understand that we can no longer afford to sit on the fence, but must become more active, and that if we do act, we are not nearly as helpless as we might think in the face of the strong forces driving us down our current path.
I even have a slogan for us:
Fellow fence-sitters of the affluent world, let’s jump!
We have nothing to lose but our next HDTVs!
[i] “Rorting” is taking unfair advantage of a public service – see for example Joseph Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality” for a range of American instances
[ii] See the Global Footprint Network’s website
[iii] ‘Our Choice: A Plan To Solve The Climate Crisis”, Al Gore, Bloomsbury, 2009