About the time a bellicose Donald Trump was lighting a bonfire under the mob that rioted into the inner sanctums of the US Capitol, I was picking up David Attenborough’s latest book, a self-described witness statement from a man who has spent his life among the exquisitely formed but fragile creatures of the planet.
“We share the Earth with the living world, the most remarkable life-support system imaginable, constructed over billions of years,” the book said by way of introduction.
I was in the bookshop in Oneroa’s main street – smack bang in the middle of a summer that has looked remarkably like the sort of old fashioned Kiwi family holidays that my generation remembers fondly from the days before Rogernomics and its pernicious power of money had its wicked way with us.
The sun was blazing a trail to the horizon and crowds on Oneroa beach formed a dense tableau of stick figures building sandcastles, playing beach games, chatting with fellow dog-owners, unpacking picnics and soaking up uncomplicated time with family.
It was a time to be in the moment, but also one perched on a high and precarious place.
As events unfolded in Washington DC in the smorgasbord world of real-time news, it was odd and disturbing to find oneself researching the definitions and pathology of fascism, which, like most ‘isms’, seldom constrains its arbiters to its rhetoric in its search for new bedfellows and sources of money and power.
Fascism has always had a complicated relationship with capitalism and changed over time, differing between fascist states. Soon after his rise to power in 1922, Mussolini said his government would “accord full freedom to private enterprise and will abandon all intervention in private economy”, even undertaking a large-scale privatisation policy which was among the first in the modern world.
However, pragmatism in the corridors of power soon inserted itself and business leaders supported the fascist government’s political and military goals, expecting government in turn to pursue economic policies that maximized the profits of its business allies.
The Washington riots have deep and dark roots and global commentators are pessimistic that the forces unlocked by an unhinged president will go back in the box any time soon, any more than Covid 19 was over and done with just because 2020 came to an end.
“We … need to decrease the influence of money in our politics: no system of checks and balances can be effective in a society with as much inequality as the US,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, Columbia University professor and chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute.
“Any system based on ‘one dollar, one vote’ rather than ‘one person, one vote’ will be vulnerable to populist demagogy. After all, how can such a system serve the interests of the country as a whole?
“America’s political system, where money reigns supreme, allowed the emerging tech companies freedom from accountability. This political system did one other thing: it generated a set of policies (sometimes referred to as neoliberalism) that delivered massive income and wealth gains to those at the top, but near-stagnation everywhere elsewhere,” said Stiglitz.
The effects are visible here on Waiheke, even on a sunny January afternoon. Good natured as those of us with our lives relatively intact can seem, there are cafés closed because they haven’t been able to house staff on the island and many of our hospitality workers are living in cars at the sports park.
And with the government continuing to leave housing as a tradeable commodity yielding enormous profits (sometimes within weeks), the long-term effects of rampant house prices on the island community will be considerable.
Our own version of species extinction due to habitat loss would be a cruel irony in a community that takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.
The living world, Attenborough says in his conclusion, has survived mass extinctions several times before. “But we humans cannot assume that we will do the same. We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence.
“We will require wisdom.”
We have all the tools we need: “the thoughts and ideas of billions of remarkable minds and the immeasurable energies of nature to help us in our work”, Attenborough says. “And we have one more thing – an ability perhaps unique among the living creatures on the planet – to imagine a future and work towards achieving it.” • Liz Waters
High stakes: ‘We will require wisdom’