The Personal is Pah-litical

My residency at the Pah Homestead ends this week. It’s been a productive, stimulating yet also restful time: a honeymoon for one. I’ve finished the first draft of a novel, pulled together a sheaf of poems, written a short ten minute film script, started notes towards two more projects, edited a little for Otago University Press, read far more than usual, and also managed to do a small amount of ‘back room’ work for Wise Response.

The support that the university and the Wallace Arts Trust give to this short-term residency still astonishes me. The Pah Homestead staff are more than professional and kind: they’re also witty, warm, wise and fun. I couldn’t have accepted the residency without the support of my own small family, who have managed alone in Dunedin, sustained by Skype, FaceTime, email, cell phone, parcels and cards…and the ability to count to ten. (Today’s broadcast was brought to you by the number 2! Only two more sleeps till family reunion…)

I developed a kind of a routine while here: on alternate days, run to Cornwall Park in the morning; come back to the apartment to work; and then late afternoon, around half past four or so, uncrick from the keyboard, head out to the glorious Mount Cecilia Park; walk through it to run any errands on foot. That’s much easier for a single-person household than a family of four, but one small way I tried to live by my ideals while I’ve been here. Reducing energy consumption where I can: lugging supplies back up the steep Mt Cecilia Park hillside (recycling all those absinthe, wine and gin  bottles, oh ho ho….)

Being away from the day to day responsibilities of family life has meant I’ve had more time to think about global issues — or rather, more time to try to pitch in to a cause I believe in. I do plenty of thinking about environmental issues when I’m at home; we cycle when we can, even with a four-year-old in a bike trailer; and as a family we have been struggling for nearly 2 years now with the practicalities and financial realities behind the ideal of building a sustainable home. Plans currently in the too-costly basket: dream deferred. Usually, I rarely have little extra time on top of editorial contracts and parenting to attend meetings or roll up my sleeves and do anything otherwise tangible about eco-concerns. The trick is to think about the issues without feeling paralysed by dread; without the physical symptoms of migraine gearing up; without hitting the inbuilt tripwire of anxiety disorder.

There are many reasons we all disengage from major social and political issues. Less of it now seems to be because people disbelieve the science behind peak oil or climate change. From the people around me, and the strangers I’ve actively petitioned on foot, I don’t think it’s always because of greed, either. (Although I don’t know any oil company executives or right wing politicians; and I’ll admit, I avoid reading right wing blogs if I can, because I start to feel those migraine symptoms start up again….) Part of our disengagement is that we’re all so embedded within and dependent upon the system as it stands; and the prospect of dismantling the entire thing can end up blowing a few psychic fuses in our own thought processes.

Of course one of the main reasons we switch off from the facts and the need to agitate is crippling fear and worry. Feeling overwhelmed by how huge and complex the problems are. Feeling terrified of what global financial and environmental meltdown will mean for us and the people we love. Feeling powerless, as ‘little people’ against a massive tide of consumption, and in the face of the ‘any growth is good’ model. Finding that doing things the ecologically sensitive way is bloody hard work, time-consuming, or even impossible. (Tell the people in wheelchairs I’ve seen around Royal Oak that they should be doing their groceries without a motorised vehicle…)

It’s difficult to find the time to stay informed and fully understand the complexities of peak oil and climate change; it’s difficult to take action when there is either a job to hold down or work to hunt for, and there are the immediate needs of young children to attend to: illness, tantrums, meltdowns (yes, they’re different!) homework, after-school commitments… And it’s not a happy place to be in, staring down the dark tunnel of an ecologically decimated future. So much easier to retreat to comedy on YouTube, drink a wine, light a ciggie, or ‘like’ funny animal photos on Facebook (Oh yes! Some of the species we’re wiping out, hilarious! With the extraction of petroleum that helps to build the very computer and power the communications I’m singing my protest song on, oh the irony!)

There are all the social risks we take if we try to question the status quo. The inner critic that says, “You’ll seem like a crank. You’ll seem like an obsessive. You’ll bum everyone out. You’ll seem like a spammer. You’ll seem like a naïve idealist. You’ll kick the plug out on the party.” Some of the things that inhibit us from acting are neatly described here, where Dave Gardener quotes the psychologist and social behaviorist Alan Berkowitz.

That blog is inspiring: thank you to the dynamo Dugald McTavish for alerting me to it. If you start to shift the way you do things, it can lead to other people around you questioning the way they do things, too. If you start to cycle to work, or with your kids to daycare or school as often as you can, other people around you might feel that little extra nudge to make the change. (I’ve seen that particular one happen: elating!) If you decide, ‘to hell with who thinks you’re a fruitcake, blog about the Wise Response cause!’, others may help to spread the word.

So, what’s Wise Response?  It’s a group calling for a cross-party risk assessment of the challenges New Zealand faces in a deteriorating environment. Once an assessment is made, then the government can take practical action.  To quote from its website:

“A risk assessment is the first step in determining the scale, timeframe and interactivity of the risks faced by New Zealand. It would build on international risk assessments such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2013 report.  Such a report for New Zealand should then be used as the basis for engaging the public and businesses of New Zealand in informed discussion as to what choices need to be made to buffer New Zealand from such risks and to work towards genuine well-being.”

The group is supported by figures like Dame Anne Salmond, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Nigel Brown, Tim Hazeldine, Anton Oliver, Brian Turner… and many more. You can find out more about the group here:


And you can sign the petition here:

Sometimes I think it’s not simply a worthy cause, but the only cause. Because every inequality, stress or injustice you can think of will only be exacerbated by the severe competition for resources that ecological crisis entails.


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