We can’t get it right like Newton—we search for patterns to lay it down in best durable forms [laughter]: watch the sea deal with rocks, feel the sand between your toes. Does it matter that Antares can consume 663 trillion Earths? Monstrous weight, that can, if you like, be lifted by the work of bees: a miracle none foretold. Let’s say of art that it thinks differently about the shape of mushrooms we picked together on Saturday—we don’t know anything about them, except two hours of fun in paddocks: the biosphere and adventure ours. No one’s going nowhere but the infinity of our own creative purpose, arriving at a place unknown.
Author Archives: Vaughan Gunson
The gods in my shed
When Apollo says he knows whether all the grains of sand in the world add up to odd or even, and that he knows too the measure of the oceans, and the number of insects that crawl the earth, and the days of cities and empires, or how many waves are curling now about to break, or that he sees each butterfly flapping its wings and knows where every ripple goes, he is saying we do not know and that we should revere the knowing which is forever beyond us, meditate on it daily, pour water on the backs of goats if we must, to remind ourselves what we do not know, and never can. That is the function of the gods I still keep on a shelve in my shed.
Seventeen years, mostly ignored. Finally, we learnt to press the olives from our tree into oil, a process which widens out into a world of infinite connections: the universe of stars and dust. Such that I hardly know how to say what we did. Perhaps, like Homer, we’ll discover in writing something smarter than ourselves. First, we blitzed the olives in a food processor, which bounced on the bench, rattling and shrill-screaming, as it spun the hard stones and oily flesh into a khaki mash that smelt divine, like the dark loamy earth between the thighs of Papatuanuku. Each batch we scooped into a large pot and heated, until this indelicate mixture began sparkling like morning dew on a pile of dung. You can thank the sun for sending water to the mountains, and for it to fall back into our laps, though it took men like my grandfather wielding the levers to build the dams with steel cracked from red earth, combined with gravel and cement squeezed from soft grey clay; the hill at Portland almost gone. And all this flows to the turning of the press made from ageless aluminium, everywhere and nowhere in the Earth’s crust, journeying now into space… and held tight in our hands, to wrench the oily liquid from its fibrous body, as alumina is wrenched from bauxite using the holding power of alpine lakes. Oil rises to the top, best left overnight in a jar that you can dip a ladle into and funnel through muslin cloth. What’s left behind is an acerbic liquid any gardener will deploy with pleasure to cut off those obstreperous weeds in mid-growth. In a ceramic jug the oil will stay peppery to taste; a wealth stored, to be drizzled on the familial bread, and spilling over onto the plate bounded by its raised rim. With the last pieces of bread, we soaked up the thin pools of golden oil and licked our glistening fingers— like shining Gods we are, for a moment.
A butterfly’s wing
These sighs, lengthening loud; split world, cold glare, chances gone in a touch of time. * Pains and pleasures still bind a common hope. * A seamless sky behind the weight of Cherry Blossom. A petal turns into a butterfly’s wing.
Rain on banana leaves
I built a shed on a hill about the size of Thoreau’s. Nearby, I planted a grove of banana trees, lady’s fingers. When they’re grown and the broken heart of Autumn brings the heavy rains, I’ll shelter inside my shed and listen for the patter on banana leaves. I make a promise, Chu Shu, to think of you then and share together our ten thousand pains.
The stonewalling shag
The shag declined to be interviewed, wouldn’t allow a photograph, said she knew nothing about the fish carcasses. “Ask the throttle-and-munch-em sea riders who were here last night.” She didn't have a song, just a certain way of puffing her chest, of being exactly where she was: the rock pools, the purple crabs, the decomposing seaweed, the curve of the bay. A rock higher than the high tide, an easy take off, these were her piper and pilchard. “Off the record, my silence was inevitable considering my original disposition to dive down under the horizon into the quiet.” After a long pause, while still looking out to sea, she said: “It's like this, those carcasses were of fish I knew in the way that you used to know the sky at night.” “Take what you want from that, I don't really care.”
New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission still puts growth before planet
New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission a few weeks ago released its draft advice to the government for consultation. The vision statement describes the future Aotearoa as a veritable utopia. This future land of ours will be “thriving,” “equitable,” “inclusive,” and “climate-resilient.” Carbon emissions will be low, we’ll have a “flourishing bio-economy,” and we’ll be “respected stewards of the land.” Transport will be “accessible to everyone equally.” Everyone will live in “warm, healthy, low emitting homes.” There will be “very little waste”, and energy will be “affordable.” Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? All we have to do is follow the advice of the report’s seven co-authors.
Some of that advice is good, like getting heavy freight off our roads by using rail and coastal shipping. And if the government were to take up the commission’s recommendations, new road construction would stop, and spending would be immediately diverted to the electrification of rail and public transport. The more I read through the report, however, the more I started to question its underlying assumptions. A major problem is how carbon emissions are calculated, which forms the whole basis for the proposed emissions reduction targets. Our emissions are those which are physically produced in this country when we travel domestically, fire up factory furnaces, and light our gas cookers. And when the country’s 10 million cows burp. Anything we import into the country isn’t included in our emissions.
According to the Climate Change Commission, a significant chunk of our transport emissions can be reduced by importing electric cars. They advocate phasing out the import of petrol-fuelled cars by 2032. The point is, the carbon emissions generated by the manufacture of all these electric cars won’t be included in our ledger. Though we’ll be the ones using them. Electric vehicles and their batteries are made with metals, plastics and raw materials sourced from around the world. The mining and manufacture of those materials are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, not easily replaced by renewable energy. Suppose the electric vehicles are then made in Germany, China and the United States. In that case, a substantial amount of the electricity used in the assembly will come from coal and gas-fired power stations. There are limits to how much low-cost renewable energy those countries can produce to cover the energy needs of their heavy industries.
It’s not just electric cars. New Zealand will have to import solar panels and wind turbines to generate the increased electricity we’ll need. As a country, we’ll be shopping our way to net-zero carbon emissions, consuming products with a high component of fossil fuel use in their construction and transportation. Effectively, we’ll be outsourcing our carbon emissions to other countries, where it will be their problem.
Another issue with the commission’s report is that our agriculture sector’s carbon equivalent emissions are dealt with lightly. There’s no call to regulate herd numbers or impose costs on our leading export earner, dairy. Farmers will largely find their own way by fine-tuning current farming practices and using new technologies. If every country goes easy on their biggest export earners, global emissions reductions will never progress at the necessary pace.
The Climate Change Commission is proposing we do something to reduce New Zealand’s emissions, but not too much that economic growth is adversely impacted. This is spelt out in passages in the report. It’s admitted that only a certain level of emission reduction is “possible at home” and that “offshore mitigation” will be needed. That means industries offsetting emissions by purchasing carbon credits overseas or investing in “carbon sinks,” like forest plantations in Siberia. The need for offshore mitigation assumes that other countries can do better than us. If all countries take this attitude to protect their economies and lifestyles, overall emissions reduction is clearly impossible.
The Climate Change Commission’s report is an overly optimistic vision of “green growth” that relies on importing high technology products and offsetting the emissions we’re unwilling to cut. That way, our economy, the commission predicts, will still grow 60 per cent by 2050. If the world economy grows at that rate, carbon emissions will continue to rise globally as a result of the massively increased energy demand. And the worst-case scenarios of catastrophic climate change will be inevitable.
What are you protecting Cicero?
Your oh-so-distaste for Tribunes who incite the popular crowd, what are you protecting Cicero? Your ballsy support for the latest drone deployment in Thrace, what are you protecting Cicero? Your polite way with handlers and a word for the homeless, what are you protecting Cicero? Your dream of heroic iambs on the steps of the Capitol, what are you protecting Cicero? Your lavish hosting of dinner parties for the argentarii, what are you protecting Cicero? Your blood-clean sacrifices in the race for everlasting life, what are you protecting Cicero? Your corpse in a vault with a tag on your toe―too late, what were you protecting Cicero?
Referendums: one tool in the democracy toolbox, not always the best
18 November 2020
I used to think we should have more referendums—the binding kind, which gave politicians no wriggle room to ignore us, the people. It seemed so sensible to me, so obviously democratic. Fair decision making simply came down to the maths. More than 50% of the vote and you had a decision. This was ultimate democracy, where everyone’s voice was heard and tallied.
The high point for me was the 1993 referendum that gave us MMP. We made the politicians do something they didn’t really want to do. And I was on the right side of history (though only by a slim margin, 53.8% voted to change our electoral system).
But later, came a low point. The referendums on changing New Zealand’s flag got really odd. Many people on the left, who you’d expect to wish the Union Jack gone, voted for the status quo because they didn’t like John Key. And choosing from uninspiring alternative designs before deciding to ditch the current flag was the wrong way about. It all got a bit silly, so I didn’t even bother casting a final vote. So much for my enthusiasm for referendums.
Our latest referendums, on euthanasia and cannabis legalisation, got me thinking more about this democratic tool I’d once been so enamoured with. One problem with having a referendum is that once the referendum is done there’s little likelihood of having another on the same issue anytime soon. But on many issues—cannabis legalisation probably being one—different generations can think differently. So the majority opinion may shift as the years pass. Making decisions by referendum, unless we keep voting on the same issue over and over (which no one wants) doesn’t allow for the majority view to change over time. We’re stuck with the cannabis decision for a while now. For a government to ignore it would undermine the whole point of having the referendum. This tallying of “for” and “against”, doesn’t provide the opportunity for a large minority to make change that others will come to agree with, or at least accept, later. Democracy can tolerate and should allow, on occasion, minority leadership. Referendums don’t enable this, which is a weakness.
Another problem with referendums was most clearly seen with the Brexit vote in Britain. A narrow vote for leaving the European Union imposed a decision on nearly half the population that they strongly disagreed with. The brutal maths of a decision based on a majority vote leaves no room for compromise or arriving at a consensus. Having close to 50% of the population living with a major constitutional decision they don’t agree with is going to create problems.
It’s not just countries that grapple with how to make democratic decisions. Does a company, a school, a union or a sports club make decisions via consensus or by putting things to a vote? Having a vote leads to winners and losers. It can compromise the functionality of the group, leading to splits and unhelpful antagonism. Getting consensus is a skill, it requires a different kind of leadership than calling for a vote. Building consensus requires everyone (or at least most) in the group wanting to achieve a consensus decision. Majority voting doesn’t require that you engage with the other side to reach a position somewhere in the middle. It may not encourage carefully listening to what other people have to say.
Now I’m not advocating that we stop having referendums. It’s just that my own view of them has evolved. Democracy is a more difficult and nuanced thing in practice than I once imagined. And it isn’t a prize on its own. It’s worth asking, what are we trying to achieve with democracy? I’d argue it’s fairness, justice and equality of opportunity to lead a flourishing life. Democracy should be regarded as a set of tools, not just a hammer. With multiple tools, we construct a house (a whare) that aims to achieve the greatest human well-being and reduce any harm and suffering.
Small and big water users on a collision course
9th September 2020
“It never rains but it pours.” Having experienced the extremes of weather this last 12 months, an appropriate re-wording of that old saying would be: “If it’s not a drought, it’s a flood.”
Northland has always had seasonal differences in rainfall. Droughts and storms that cause extensive flooding aren’t new. But last summer was the hottest and driest I can recall, and it’s been followed by the wettest winter. Our climate is obviously changing. Climate scientists are predicting that what we’re experiencing may well be the new normal.
Regular droughts will put a strain on water supplies and cause disputes between different water users. Those tensions are already emerging. There’s been much interest in the application by avocado growers to access an additional 6 million litres of water per year from the Aupōuri Peninsula’s aquifer. The only source of water for many Far North locals. It’s not the only area where water consents are being sought.
A common feature is the large size of the operations wanting increased access to water. In Northland, like the rest of New Zealand, farming enterprises are getting bigger. This is a model of land use and ownership heavily dependent on scale to generate operating efficiencies. Companies are often highly leveraged to banks. Their focus is on delivering a single food product to supermarkets or for export. Leaving aside the justice of land being increasingly owned by a few, this model has a lot of risk contained in it. Prices can fluctuate, interest rates can go up, input costs can increase, or it might not rain enough.
Too little rainfall at crucial times of the year is a risk that big agriculture wants to mitigate. These enterprises could build water storage themselves, capturing water during periods of heavy rainfall in a similar way to a householder or bach owner collects water in a tank. That would be a private cost. Companies with slim margins and an eye on reducing costs would rather access water cheaply from underground aquifers. Or have the government and local councils pick up the costs of irrigation projects or mass water storage.
Recently the government gave $12 million for a water storage project coordinated by the Northland Regional Council. The project received $18.5 million last year. That’s likely to be only the start of public money for water storage and irrigation projects that will be essential to new large scale horticulture ventures.
The high-cost, high-risk vision of agriculture has clearly got backing within government and local councils. It’s not, however, the only vision of farming for Northland. One better adapted to the extremes of weather caused by the atmosphere warming is small scale mixed farming producing for a local market. Of which there are plenty of pioneers in Northland today.
Regenerative agriculture uses practices to keep water in the land. Organic material is used to maintain healthy aerated soils that can absorb and retain moisture. The emphasis is on a diversity of crops and animal husbandry. Different crops may succeed one year where others fail without destroying the viability of the whole farm. A term often used in ecology circles to describe this type of farming is resilient. It’s adaptable in the way that planting a single crop over 400 hectares is not.
Given what we know about climate change, small scale organic farming practices producing a variety of quality food for local people needs to be our future. It’s not the dynamic that’s currently playing out across Tai Tokerau. Big is in the ascendency.
Climate change and farming intensification are on a collision course in Northland, with water access the flashpoint. Where does public sentiment lie? Is it with the big landowners and their high-risk model, or with the resilient practices of the small organic farmer?