Talk to Wednesday Group, St Clair. 16 April 2014.

In his best-seller, The Old Ways, a brilliant evocation of the tracks, drove-roads and ancient paths that crisscross Britain, Robert Macfarlane talks of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when one moves from one landscape to another, the shock of realization that one is about to enter a new world.

Nearer to home one thinks of the dramatic transition at Makarora from Central’s spare mountains and lakes to the rainforest on the West Coast.

Suddenly one is in another world.

Metaphorically speaking the controversy about Deep Sea Drilling highlights exactly that. For such abrupt transformations are the stuff of history. Yet this metaphorical crossing of boundaries is invariably accompanied by plunging despair and elated anticipation in almost equal proportions. The deep-sea drilling debate triggered both delight and fury.

When we went out a month or so ago on that little yacht of ours to confront the Noble Bob Douglas that floating monstrosity, our Maori kaitiaki from Karitane raised the key question: “To whom do you think these seas belong?” Has a Texan oil company the right to block access to the traditional sailing paths of the people of the land? Are all the resources of the earth available to the highest bidder, do future generations have a say in the integrity of creation?

Deep Sea Oil drilling is only a symptom of infinitely wider ecological issues. Just last week the UN’s latest report re-emphasised that unless dramatic political initiatives are taken within the next decade the 2 % increase in global warming will trigger irreversible change. We already have in previously located oil and gas reserves more than 5 times enough to exceed this 2%. What madness is this, prospecting for more? It is our madness. There is scant point blaming the politicians. Both in developed and developing countries politicians will never act until their people get the message that the present growth in consumption is unsustainable.

So far, then, there is precious little cognition and the dissonance is limited to the radical minority. We have only the narrowest window of opportunity to convince middle New Zealand that we are on a course to disaster. Yet there are more encouraging signs elsewhere. I just returned from a month in Germany. Everywhere you see fields or roofs covered with solar panels, forests of windmills; utilisation of energy from rubbish disposal: the so-called Energiewende.

However the rather hysterical reactions in Dunedin to the possibility of a discovery of oil or gas shows how few in the business community (or in the comfortable suburbs) think beyond immediate profit. Some of the populist opposition we met was totally bizarre. How can cyclists, we were asked, who need to lubricate their bikes, oppose oil?

So how do we shift opinion in middle New Zealand? Because this is not just a matter for some enlightened academics, for the Greens, for the churches, for the soft edge, so to speak, of public opinion. All of us, not least parents and grandparents need to start thinking in terms of the long stretch of a sustainable future, not immediate advantages in the next election.

We in middle New Zealand need a revolution in our cognition, in our use of energy and of consumable resources. We need to think globally. We depend economically on China and India, but our appetite for their exports products are only affordable because of environmentally catastrophic policies. In exchange, we export to them our bad conscience about pollution.

All our evasions and denials all point to cognitive dissonance. We are scared rigid at the prospect of entering a new world, a new landscape, and so we shrug off the revolution in thinking and in action, which is imperative. We are up against huge vested interests of course. When the little St Martin Island Community put up a sign on the jetty opposing drilling we were accused of advertising and threatened with legal action, which would have bankrupted it. We talk democracy and free speech in this country but the reality is the totalitarianism of the market. (German young people asked their parents in the 1960’s and 1970’s what they did in the Nazi era. What will our grandchildren ask of us?)

There are immediate things we can do. Press the DCC, our churches, all the groups we belong to, to disinvest from oil. Small actions kindle bigger ones. During the dark days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland the slogan was coined: “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Think positively! The Peace Movement in this country also acted locally (Nuclear Free Zones) in order to be effective globally. Jeremiads get us nowhere. Utopian initiatives, little experiments, point to a possible and richer future. We are on the cusp of a new way of being human.

Discussion after the talk focused on why we refuse as a society to listen to what the scientists are saying. One reason suggested was the profound fear just under the surface that there is nothing ahead of us but catastrophe, so avert your eyes! Another was the vested interest of those currently profiting from the madness. (Why were electric cars removed from production?) Another was the dearth of credible political leadership.
Others pointed out that there is huge energy out there, human energy for change, just waiting to be tapped, among which are many young people. But also among their parents’ generation, are those who currently hold the levers of power. To reach them, the middle New Zealand, this is the challenge we face!

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