My mum is 89 and needs 24-hour care. Despite multiple strokes, she can still smile and, when the clouds in her head part, the old sense of fun is not faraway. She holds a blue stone day and night.
My Christmas was spent feeding mum, helping her stand so she felt safe to take those few excruciating steps to the bed, the wheelchair, the commode. I changed her, washed her and read to her. I held her hand when she was upset in the night.
Except for a few phone calls and visits from family, that was our Christmas.
I turned off the radio and the TV. We didn’t have to participate in the nation’s most obscene display of conspicuous consumption ever recorded – a record-breaking 148 electronic transactions per second at 12:24pm on Christmas Eve.
Nor did we join the Boxing Day scramble when sales rocketed 12 per cent past last year’s record.
And when more than 20,000 new items got listed on Trade Me.
Mum’s carers came as usual to shower her at Christmas. They used their own cars, paying the first 10 kilometres themselves and then earning 30 cents per kilometre on top of a minimum hourly rate of $13.75.
Along with their 40,000 care worker colleagues, they sit at the bottom of the Kiwi income ladder, where half of New Zealanders earn less than $24,000 per year. At the top, a chief executive’s average salary is $1.5 million.
So who was ringing up $235 million through the nation’s tills on Christmas Eve while mum’s carers worked and we sat home? Who owns what in Godzone?
New Zealand’s 2.9 million adults own almost $470 billion in cash and assets, but it’s not shared evenly. In fact, the wealthiest 1 per cent own three times as much as the poorest 50 per cent combined. Around 1.45 million of us own just 5 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
At the bottom end of the asset ladder, it’s not wealth but debt, debt, debt. Hence, for many, Christmas becomes the most stressful time of year. On go the carols, up goes the tinsel and out comes the hard sell. Off we trot, clocking up debt that half of us can’t afford to repay.
My friend, physics professor Bob Lloyd from the University of Otago, talks about another, bigger kind of debt – and not just at Christmas. He talks of energy inputs and outputs.
One output is atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Since the discovery of coal, cheap oil and gas, we’ve been on an energy spending spree like there’s no tomorrow. The burning of these fuels has dumped massive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet.
This is a proven fact, but vested interests – mostly with connections to the fossil fuel industry – try to confuse us. You can see why – they have a lot to lose. Eighty per cent of their already discovered coal, oil and gas will soon be worthless because they will have to remain unburned for the planet’s atmosphere to keep to two degrees of global warming.
Go above two degrees, the world’s governments have agreed, and we are on a trajectory toward mass extinction within a few short generations.
It may already be too late. Weather patterns are changing faster than predicted, ice is melting and excess dissolved CO2 is acidifying the oceans.
Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years, so even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, multiple changes are already in the pipeline. Put bluntly, the world’s output of CO2 has become the main limiting factor to future human existence. We’re in debt, big time.
But Bob sees global warming as a symptom rather than a cause. Our CO2 debt, like our household debt, is a symptom of the same addiction. The cause, up in lights this Christmas, is conspicuous consumption, rampant consumerism, the myth that we can keep on growing in a finite world already choked to the brim.
Bob’s cure is a strict treatment regime with three main remedies.
One: We need to reduce inequality. Why do we allow a chief executive to earn more than 62 times what we’re prepared to pay someone to toilet him when he’s old?
Two: We need to change the economic system to reverse the emphasis on conspicuous consumption.
Three: We must halt the vested interests that, until now, have kept the “business as usual” machine ticking along – vested interests like those described by English journalist George Monbiot in a February 2013 Guardian article about two secretive organisations working for US billionaires that have spent $118 million to ensure that no action is taken to prevent man-made climate change.
Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? Our Christmas gifts to them include an atmosphere choked with CO2, slowly dying oceans, record storms and droughts far into the future. Right now we are stealing from their future to give them something they may just put on Trade Me the next day.
It’s not going to be easy. We need to get honest and stop pretending there’s no tomorrow. Tomorrow belongs to our kids.
And here’s a gift for next year. Find an old person, turn off the TV and radio, and be with them for Christmas.
Rosemary Penwarden is a Wanganui grandmother, freelance writer and member of Coal Action Network Aotearoa, a group that wants to see the sensible phasing out of coal mining, and Oil Free Otago.