We have had 10,000 years of planetary stability since the last glacial period to become the new anthropocene species but we live and may very well may die by some unfortunate myths, not least our vague sense that moral progress will eventually happen. That no matter how bad things are, if we give it time, things will get better.
A particularly good article on the realities of change that came across my desk recently quoted Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s response to an open letter from a group of white Alabama clergymen in 1963. They acknowledged “the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being recognised” but described the civil rights demonstrations of the time as “unwise and untimely”. Effectively, change would happen but only if the oppressed did not allow their impatience to get in the way, they said.
King’s excoriating response accused them of a patronising attempt to arbitrate “the timetable for another man’s freedom” and missing the point that time does not magically bring about change.
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” he said.
Here on Waiheke, close to the stars, the endlessly changing horizons and living life at close quarters with nature, it’s not easy to formulate an intelligent response to the monolithic problems piling up for the human race and an epoch already defined by nuclear tests, plastic pollution and domesticated chicken.
Last weekend, my grandchildren were mesmerised by a series of David Attenborough’s eyewateringly beautiful footage of birds, sea life, coral and rainforests. The marathon viewing unfolded in brilliant technicolour and compelling commentary, the almost infinite intricacy of an extraordinary planet captured by skilled botanists, researchers and cameramen.
Almost all of which remains under intense threat from the power and privilege of the world’s financial overlords.
Dr King and other 20th century gamechangers amply demonstrated that unless committed groups of people band together and fight for it, wholesome transition is not guaranteed to happen any time soon. When I was a schoolgirl, America’s iniquitous bus segregation and civil rights abuses were a global byword. By time I was working, the battle for King’s radical change had been fought and won.
It’s a scenario well understood on Waiheke – I think we never really got over the realisation in the 1980s that one minute our Nuclear Free island march to Matiatia was Waiheke hippie fringe, yet within months, the issue was national and being eloquently debated by our prime minister at Oxford.
So no-one should be surprised at Waiheke’s reaction when a new civil defence handbook by Auckland Council included a widely reported community action protesting against ad hoc council planning rules at Wharetana Bay as an example of the need for Civil Defence in action.
Paddy wagons carted off respected and unresisting residents and the front page picture on Gulf News that week showed it wasn’t pretty.
Nor is that piece of recent history’s odd inclusion the only sign of an unhealthy desire in influential circles of Auckland Council to shut citizens out of decision-making for the future.
The Waiheke Local Board’s ‘relationships manager’ signalled the same mindset in his working document on whether the five-member Waiheke Local Board should be briefed by officials in closed ‘workshops’ this next three years.
Unruly residents, if present, might be incited to violence and officials be unwilling to reveal plans that might lead to public disorder, he said. The board acquiesced, even though the council plans to set Waiheke’s future in a series of binding plans this term.
We are not the sum of the world’s iniquities and the balance of forces, even in the United States, is still down to a handful of voters. For every rogue dictatorship and gang of well-armed mercenaries there are village women and elders setting out on terrifying Odyssies to find a new niche for their children. For each flagrant oligarch there are millions working tirelessly to improve human life and health.
Every life form is wired to strive. It’s a powerful evolutionary force and under Darwinian rules, since privilege benefits those in power, no-one should expect the powerful to just give it up. The struggle to put pressure on the powerful is necessary for change. • Liz Waters