Northern Advocate Column

New Zealand’s Climate Change Commission still puts growth before planet

The 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.

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Northern Advocate Column

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.

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Northern Advocate Column

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?   

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Northern Advocate Column

‘A Small Farm Future’ by Chris Smaje

14 November 2020

Imagine no Fonterra, no mega-dairy farms, no super-sized avocado orchards. Imagine that shiploads of rice, wheat, and—oh my god!—coffee, weren’t landing on our shores. Imagine instead that all the food we eat is grown locally on small farms, less than a few hectares. That’s the future for the world envisaged by Chris Smaje, author of the new book A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green Publishing in the UK. 

There’s long been recognition in permaculture and ecological circles that small-scale mixed farming is the future we need. The strength of Smaje’s book is that he tackles head-on the possible criticisms of this small farm future. Like the idea that small farms, with little or no fossil fuel inputs, couldn’t possibly feed the world. To counter that argument, Smaje makes a case study of Britain in 2050 with an increased population of 83 million (thanks to the benevolent acceptance of refugees fleeing from countries worst affected by climate change). 

He goes through the process of dividing up the land and labour of the country, factoring in conservative estimates on yields, and making choices about what needs to be grown to produce the necessary calories. There would be more vegetables eaten, including potatoes a thousand ways, and a lot less sugar and red meat. The figures he comes up with, carefully explained and justified with scientific rigour along the way, say, yes, it can be done. There might be political, economic and social reasons why Britain doesn’t immediately embrace small farm self-sufficiency. Still, this doesn’t mean, according to Smaje’s analysis, that it’s not possible. 

You often hear from New Zealand export farmers—of dairy and meat in particular—that they’re performing the necessary service of “feeding the world.” But the rest of the world, if land was owned and controlled differently, and if different social and environmental considerations reigned, could, in fact, feed itself. 

Being a small farmer himself, and with a science background, Smaje is careful about any claims he makes. It’s this sober analysis that actually makes Smaje’s book inspiring and worthy of repeated reads (he’s also a great writer). A Small Farm Future is theoretical, but it’s grounded in the limits that farming (and nature more broadly) has always imposed on the human species. One of Smaje’s common themes, bringing together economics, lifestyle and sustainability, is that accepting limits is healthy. Less destabilising and stressful of people and eco-systems than the illusion of no limits. 

Our high energy, high waste, globalised economy is clearly overreaching the limits of what the Earth can support. Cities, according to Smaje, for a host of social, economic and environmental reasons, will start to empty out. With a city exodus leading to an expanding rural population, then land ownership, Smaje predicts, will be a flashpoint political issue. They’ll be an urgent need for land reform that makes land available to small farmers to own. 

The later parts of the book are perhaps the most fascinating and also original. Smaje speculates on what a small farm society might look like. He stresses, for instance, the importance of avoiding the exploitation of women’s work by patriarchal farmers. There’s no reason why the values we currently hold dear—like gender equality—can’t be part of the legal framework of a small farm society. Smaje does anticipate, however, the eroding power of the centralised state, conceding more power to local populations to decide things for themselves. One interesting chapter is titled “From Nations to Republics.” 

Smaje has lots of good things to say about peasants, both historically and today. As someone who fancies himself as a neo-peasant (more in my dreams than in reality), I’m attracted to his unapologetic advocacy of the peasant life. Though it would have to be free of domination by colonial or financial elites. Rehabilitating the peasant as a positive term might stress them as autonomous, multi-skilled, fiercely independent, creative types, who are keen scientific observers of their environment. 

Smaje never presents his small farm future as a utopia. Without fossil fuels, whether restricted due to attempts to reduce carbon emissions or because of increasing costs over time, farming will require a lot more human and animal labour. Smaje is sceptical of a super high tech world of robots and the automation of everything. The energy inputs of such a world—truly utopian—just don’t stack up. Besides, as Smaje persuasively argues, we might find that working on a farm to sustain ourselves and our families, and generating a small surplus, makes us quite happy. That life might be better than doing a bullshit job working for someone else and addicted to whatever passive entertainment global internet-based media companies feed us. Smaje isn’t afraid to make moral judgements. 

An ever-expanding global economy requiring more and more energy inputs—which renewables can’t possibly satisfy—is the delusional future. In one hundred years (probably less), whether we plan for it or not, more people will be working on the land, cities will have declined in population and influence, fossil fuels will be scarce or non-existent. Getting started on embracing the positives that derive from necessity, and trying to make that transition as orderly, just and fair as possible would probably be a good idea. Books like A Small Farm Future are important. They’ll plant seeds in the minds of farmers and searchers for an ecologically-centred and spiritually satisfying way of life. 

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Northern Advocate Column

A holiday to celebrate Matariki, yes!

12 June 2018

When it comes to our public holidays I range from passable participation, boredom, to cynical disbelief―why are we celebrating that? Queen’s Birthday definitely the latter.

A paid day off is always great, but I want something more from a holiday. I want to feel. 

Christmas and New Year come closest. Who doesn’t like reaching the end of the year and enjoying a relaxing time with family. I get that. 

Northland Anniversary Day? Meh. 

Waitangi Day? I’ve enjoyed days at Waitangi itself, but despite attempts to establish the Treaty as a founding document for this country I’m too aware that it really was a calculated attempt by the British to claim dominion over this land. Too much post-colonial guilt for it to feel like a holiday should. And not everyone in the country seems to be uniformly celebrating the day, so it feels awkward, like a work function where there are unresolved tensions between management and staff. You just can’t quite get into it. 

I like the length of Easter, but chocolate eggs and bunnies mashed-up with the biblical story of Christ’s death on the cross and rising a few days later doesn’t do much for me. 

I understand that Anzac Day means a lot to some people. It’s the kind of holiday – commemoration is a better word – that I’m looking for, something with a depth of feeling. It’s just that the nationalist myth-making, the ties it still reinforces to Western powers, the uniforms and hierarchies, don’t sit well with my anarchist-inclined tastes. 

Labour Day is an interesting one. We got that in 1900 to mark the struggle by unions to achieve an eight-hour working day. But not much is made of it, really. A symptom perhaps of New Zealand’s working-class history being so successfully removed from our everyday consciousness. A kind of collective lobotomy, as if we’ve all been playing Mike Hosking through headphones at night. 

Our line-up of public holidays just feels tired and stale to me. Traditions and continuity are all well and good, but change is necessary too. So I’m joining the chorus of people calling for Matariki, the Māori New Year, to become our newest holiday season. A chance for reflection, hearty dinners and public festivals of art and entertainment. 

It should be two days off, one either side of a weekend in June. Replace the outdated Queen’s Birthday and then increase our public holiday count by one to 12 (still behind Australia’s 13). 

I have in mind a truly internationalist holiday. Yes, with a perspective indigenous to this land, but mid-winter celebrations are common to most cultures around the world. Under the umbrella of Matariki, celebrations could reflect the full diversity of communities that have come to Aotearoa. Some by following the stars long ago, others more recently watching movies on the backseat of the airline passengers in front of them.

It should be a holiday season that combines local belonging with a global consciousness. A holiday fit for that purpose is something I could embrace wholeheartedly. 

Matariki, it’s in the stars. 

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Northern Advocate Column

Some thoughts on Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

Taylor_Swift_-_FolkloreThe cover of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore is a black and white photo of the singer-songwriter in a long coat standing in a forest of tall, slender trees. Swift is small, barely recognisable, her head tilted slightly, looking up at the nearest tree.

Taylor Swift isn’t small though. She’s a global pop star, one of the biggest. Yet the conceit of the cover is that even Taylor Swift is tiny compared to the majesty of nature.

While there’s no back-to-nature roots music on the album, the songs are more humble, less ego-driven, not so much caught up in the swirl of celebrity culture. The pop glam, the brash put-downs, the revelling in self-mythology that were part of Swift’s recent catalogue is largely missing here. Most of the songs are about characters other than Swift herself. Whatever past experiences she’s drawing on from her own life, these are seamlessly woven into narratives and character sketches that we ordinary folk can identify with.

Many of the songs have the narrator recalling the past. As in the lost love of a woman’s “roaring twenties” in the opening track ‘The 1’; and the teenage love dramas in ‘Cardigan’, ‘Betty’ and ‘August.’ There are memories of being seven years old in the gorgeous ‘Seven’, with its aching poetry of nostalgia and never to be regained innocence and wonder. A bittersweet melody accompanies these opening lines: “Please picture me in the trees/ I hit my peak at seven/ Feet in the swing over the creek.” We can picture Swift as a child on a swing, but we also picture ourselves. We all have such moments from our childhood that we remember and cherish.

Swift develops the scene with the lines: “I was high in the sky/ With Pennsylvania under me.” Then switching registers, a sudden question: “Are there still beautiful things?” And it’s in this one line that we have a connection to the bigger picture of our lives amid a global pandemic and whatever is to come. Are there still beautiful things? Yes there are, and ‘Seven’ is one of them.

Most of us have a history of failed relationships with people. We look back with some regret and maybe a little maturity. Hoping we won’t repeat past mistakes. This is the key to the album’s title. The folklore here is not the rural tradition of folk music, but our own past lives and what we can learn from looking back on them.

There’s often a double-sided nature to our reminiscing though. We might hope we’ve grown and gained insight into ourselves, but there’s still the lingering sense that our youthful dramas were the best of times. Falling in and out of love with people and places (and even ideas or political creeds) had an emotional intensity that we can look back on with envy. There can be regret or sadness in recalling our past, but part of us wishes we were still there. Taylor Swift understands that contradiction, like when she sings in ‘August’: “Back when we were still changing for the better/ Back when I was living for the hope of it all.”

In ‘This is me trying’ she likens herself to a once flash new car or bike: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/ I had the shiniest wheels/ Now they’re rusting.” There is no going back. That’s accepted. Contentment, if not drama and adventure, can be found in the present. As in these poet-worthy lines: “Time, mystical time, cutting me open, then healing me fine.”

Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from slow piano ballads, with textured and subtle, mood-amplifying guitar. There are accompanying electronic effects, and the album sounds very produced, but it’s intimate in a way that past Taylor Swift albums are not. For all its layered production, the album still feels like musicians making music in a cabin somewhere in an untouched forest in a mythical place called America. To understand, perhaps, what this album feels like to listen to, go back to that cover photo. If the photo speaks to you at this time of coronavirus, then so might these 17 songs.

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Northern Advocate Column

My cricket heroes

richard_hadlee01jul1823 December 2017

I grew up in the 1980s, which meant, like many boys of that generation, cricket was a big deal. The eighties to cricket watches of my age is still the golden period, the best of times, the haloed era.

This had a lot to do, of course, with one man, Richard Hadlee. His skill, yes, but also his style: the thin moustache, the stutter step to start his run; his glide to the crease and seemingly effortless whip-smart action.

As a kid, I imagined him as a Robin Hood, played by Errol Flynn perhaps. A connection I made from watching the old movies that screened on TV in the weekends.

If I’m honest, cricket for me has always been about the television experience: listening to the commentary, seeing the ball swing or nip back off the wicket; the balletic elegance of a Martin Crowe pull shot, dissected in replays. It’s the close-ups of the batsman’s face in a pressure situation. Or the mannerisms you picked up, which distinguished, say, a John Wright from an Ian Smith. These guys were my action heroes, my equivalent of the Avengers.

Hero worship can be powerful stuff. So many young cricketers I remember playing with used to walk like Martin Crowe, stand as he stood at the crease.

Time is not always kind to your heroes, however; your estimation of them wears like a cricket ball on an Indian dustbowl pitch. And sport finds its place in the jumble of your life, somewhere over the boundary, no longer on the green of the field.

And yet, those eighties cricketers cannot be knocked entirely off their pedestal, because that time will always be when I was a kid growing up. Still imagining you’d play for your country and be able to bowl a ball that pitches on middle and swings enough to miss the bat and hit the top of off.

I can vividly remember Hadlee bowling Australian batsman Steve Waugh like this. It looked so aesthetically perfect on TV, with Hadlee celebrating with the cool air of someone who expected it to be so.

Today, international cricket returns to Whangarei after many years. There’ll be plenty of kids there to see their heroes, and there’ll be some older guys too, who perhaps grew up, like me, watching cricket on TV in the eighties.

And there’ll be people attending who’ve been involved in Northland cricket for decades, as players, coaches, club administrators. They’ll be at Cobham Oval to watch, hopefully, a full game, quietly satisfied to have the Black Caps playing the West Indies in Whangarei.

Cricket, like everything in the world, is changing. New stories are being written. But if Tim Southee bowls Chris Gayle I’m sure there’ll be a familiar sounding cheer go up from the crowd.

What does it mean in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just something that connects us to the kids we once were.

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Northern Advocate Column

Bananas and the home economy in the time of coronavirus

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I want to start off talking about bananas. Specifically, the bananas ripening in a large bunch on the plant next to my garden shed. It’s the second bunch we’ve had, and I’m very proud. I bought one plant from the Tikipunga Markets in Whangārei six years ago for less than $10. A slow return on the initial investment, but with two bunches I’m now showing some profit. And I’m likely to show more as time goes on, as a banana sends out shoots from the base of an established tree, which you can dig up and plant somewhere else. So I’ve got banana trees growing at multiple spots around the section. More bunches of bananas will follow.

All this banana activity involves a little bit of work, planting and harvesting. You could call grating the hard green bananas and making plantain fritters work as well. Or even putting the ripe bananas in a blender to make a smoothie. It’s work, however, that’s not going to show up in New Zealand’s GDP figures when they officially come out. A smoothie purchased and drunk in a cafe before the lockdown will. That’s because money was used to pay for it, so it’s work done that’s part of the measurable monetary economy.

When released, New Zealand’s GDP figures will show a big fall in economic activity due to the struggle to keep coronavirus out. But those GDP figures won’t accurately reflect all that’s been going on during the lockdown. Because GDP doesn’t measure unpaid work. Since so much store is put in the GDP figures (which must always go up), and we’re all caught in the necessity of earning money, we tend to value paid work over unpaid work.

Mike Hosking, in one of his recent columns, said that we can’t have everyone at home doing nothing for much longer. Yes, we need to get back to the workplace and earn some money, but I doubt many of us have been doing nothing, as Hosking claims. For instance, I’ve put in two new vegetable gardens. I’ve finally finished painting the house (hallelujah!). I’ve cooked and I’ve cleaned. I’ve done dishes until they’ve come out my ears (we don’t have a dishwasher and four people at home all day generates a lot of dishes). We’ve made our own bread, tortillas, muffins and pizza bases. I’ve helped the kids with their school work.

And when walking around Hikurangi, I would say my neighbours have been busy too. Sections are looking good. All sorts of odd jobs are being done. My immediate neighbours have three children under the age of 7. Stuck at home with kids that young for four weeks is hard work.

Kiwis haven’t been doing nothing. The national economy, as measured in monetary terms, will have contracted significantly, but home economies have undoubtedly expanded. The word “economy” actually comes from the ancient Greek word, “oikonomos”, which means “household management.” The original economy, you could say, was the home.

Now, I don’t want to deny the financial hardship many are experiencing right now, especially with the cost of housing, but there is work you can do for yourself at home that saves money. Maybe think about how you can expand your home economy. Grow, bake, cook, repair, paint, tend, nourish, fix, preserve, care, build, and teach. Plant bananas, the Northland climate is excellent for them. It might be that if you’re a couple, you can live off one income instead of two if you consciously develop the home economy.

And if you do become unemployed, temporarily or longer-term, don’t listen to anyone who says you’re not doing anything. There’s plenty that you can do that’s valuable to yourself and other people in your life. Household management is an important role.

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Northern Advocate Column

Lockdown is a victory for humanity

It might not seem like it right now, but this is a victory for humanity. 

“How can this be?” you ask. How can this be, when I’m scared and worried about the future? How can this be, when I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills? But that’s what it is, absolutely. It’s a victory for all that’s decent in us; for an altruistic spirit that exists alongside our more selfish instincts. 

Think about what we’re doing in New Zealand. Think about what people of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities are doing all over the world. We’re stopping everything at a high cost to the global economy, so lives may be saved. Mostly elderly lives, those we might be tempted, in a worse world, to say are expendable. 

An economic rationalist could interject right now and say that the cost-benefit analysis of the situation means that we should do nothing.  Let coronavirus run its course. The economy is more important. 

But our government, to its credit, has said no. We have a chance to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of New Zealanders loved by their friends and families. 

This decision will come at a cost. It will have political and economic ramifications for years to come. Still, we do this because it’s the right thing to do. Because there’s something in us that says to do otherwise would be abhorrent, would be inhuman. 

This is a victory of human decency. It’s a victory of human society over economic society. No matter how we got there, something good has kicked in that has allowed us to arrive at decisions that will prevent untimely, early deaths. This is incredible when you think about it. We’re participating in something decent, honourable even. 

My personal freedom is being restricted, yet somehow I’m liberated. I can see clearly how what’s good in us can enable our often clumsy and flawed institutions to make a noble decision. 

In the days, weeks, months ahead, we can remind ourselves that this is what it feels like to make a sacrifice for the greater good. Can a monetary value be put on that feeling? 

Unfortunately, there will still be deaths from coronavirus in New Zealand over the next four week period and beyond that. But we can expect the number to be less than what might have occurred if the lockdown was not put in place. This is our achievement. 

In recognising the enormity of what we’re embarking on, doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to debate, new decisions that need to be made which flow from the ones already made. 

There will be wrong decisions. There will be contention, differences of opinion, great and small. Politics can never be suspended. Politics is about different ideas for the way forward. Politics is about different interest groups applying pressure to the decision-making processes of society. 

There will be political battles fought in the months and years to follow. If I have the opportunity, I will certainly push to expose and argue against the control of economic society by an elite few. The interests of the global class of capitalists and bankers are still behind many of the decisions made by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and the Reserve Bank. 

The forces that control economic society are, however, on the back foot, which will help the side of human society. Those struggles are ahead of us. Kia kaha. 

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Northern Advocate Column

Proverbs in times of crisis

I like a good proverb. I enjoy scouring the wisdom of the past for some insight that speaks to me. So I was intrigued by an exhibition at the Geoff Wilson Gallery in Whangārei that paired artist’s creations with proverbs from different cultures.

The artworks were interesting, but being a wordy-type, it was the proverbs (or whakataukī) that held my attention. I couldn’t help but read them in light of coronavirus. It’s in trying times that proverbs—essentially short meaningful sayings—can offer some comfort or perspective on the situation. They might also impart a warning.

I’ve selected five proverbs here and give my interpretations in the context of the life-changing and era-defining events unfolding.  

“There’s no iron so hard that rust won’t fret it, and there’s no cloth so fine that moths won’t eat it.” – Scottish Proverb

The global economy, mind-blowing in scale and complexity, can be devastated by a microorganism. We should never forget nature’s ability to bring down what we build-up, and that time can bring the end to all things. So maybe we shouldn’t be too confident to believe that what we achieve or construct will last. Like many proverbs this one is a warning against hubris. 

“The gem cannot be polished without friction nor man perfected without trials.” – Chinese Proverb 

The threats to health and income will test many people over the coming months. This Chinese proverb offers the hope that from adversity we might grow and improve. Individuals will rise to the challenge, within families, in the health system, within government. Our institutions, particularly those meant to ensure the well-being of all, maybe strengthened and improved. A positive for when we face future crises. 

“Corners of a house can be seen, but corners of the heart cannot be seen. He kokonga whare, e kitea, he kokonga ngakau, e kore e kitea.” Hauraki Proverb

We can never know exactly what’s going on inside another person. This proverb should remind us to cut people some slack if they’re moody or offend us in some way. There might be something worrying them that we don’t know about. Good advice always, but pertinent now. It can also be read as a warning. People’s motivations aren’t always clear. They could have selfish motives behind appearances, or a hidden agenda. In response to Covid-19 and the economic fallout, there will be a rising pitch of voices. That’s to be expected. There will be agendas—honest and upfront ones—but also ones that are concealed. Is that politician, social media influencer, investment advisor, or business leader really motivated by a wider concern, or is there self-interest involved? 

“Because my house has become soiled, let the smoking ashes be cleansed by the four winds of heaven. Waiho mā ngā hau e whā hei whakaatea ai te poa i taku whare.”Hauraki Proverb

This one punches heavy, influenced perhaps by that book of heavy punches, the Bible. Something has become so soiled, rotten-through, that the best action is to reduce it to ashes. Those four winds of heaven, however, offer the possibility of cleansing. The past can be blown away, and we can start over. There’s maybe a nod to the four horsemen of the apocalypse here. Or I’d like to think, the winds that come from four directions, North, South, East, and West. The world will not be the same after coronavirus. The unpredictable winds of change are going to buffet governments, corporations, banks, and the economic orthodoxies that have prevailed in recent years. Some good may come of it. 

“On looking back, the land was covered white with ghosts. I te huringa kō muri, e haramā te whenua i te kēhua.” – Maori Proverb

As we move forward, doing what we have to do, we should pause at times to reflect on the loss of wisdom and experience being felt by communities and families around the world. 

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