How we can bring the world out of the mess in which it finds itself
From the New Zealand edition of Fleeing Vesuvius:
Tenei te mihi ki te maunga, ki nga awa, ki te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Ki taku hapori me toku whanau: he mihi mahana. Ki o matou tupuna: haere, haere, haere atu ra ki Hawaiki-nui, ki Hawaiki-roa, ki Hawaiki-pamamao. Ki o matou uri: e mahi ana matou mo koutou, ake ake ake.
I have tried to write this article many times in the past three to four years. I have changed dramatically in that time, from a full-on, full-time city activist to a rural… well, I don’t know what to call myself now but whatever I am becoming, I feel way more grounded and as if I’m making a real difference, finally, without running away to the hills.
People used to bemoan the lack of privacy in small villages yet now we live in a global village that can record and make accessible our every comment to whomever, forever. Once we had freedom to fully participate in important decision-making; now our lives are run by the exploiting capitalist class and more and more of us are forced into the ratrace, living in giant, toxic, concrete jungles just to survive. How many feel useful or happy? How many have real community or even remember what it’s for?
In considering the mess of the world, I find it easiest to write about my personal journey, not because I want to talk about myself but because I find the personal easier for people to relate to and because it gives context to my points of view.
My father’s parents were Maori farmers from Taranaki. In the great urban drift of the 1950s my dad moved to Wellington to study and work. My mother is a second-generation pakeha ‘New Zealander’. My father died young, when I was almost seven, so my mother has worked fulltime as a secondary teacher (and solo mum for several years) since a few months after my father’s death.
Both my parents were passionate about spending time in nature and discussing current affairs. It must have rubbed off because I ended up studying environmental sciences at university. When I finished there I did some volunteer work with NGOs, trying to get a foot in to some paid work. It proved fruitless and instead I found some activist groups – people I could work with rather than for.
I started off volunteering in a small group working on rainforest protection but in the late ’90s that global campaign was coming to an end. Other groups were working on animal rights, stopping the expansion of roads through communities and stopping the war in Iraq. I was involved with those groups for a while and eventually came upon anarchism and the politics of free people governing themselves non-hierarchically.
At one point I travelled the globe, documenting the causes of the world’s problems and the awesome solutions communities were creating. That film’s still not done because in the following years my life became activism instead. My fellow activists became my friends. We would set up and manage new groups and projects, organise protests, guerilla garden, yell at weapons conference-goers, occupy mountaintops destined to become open-pit coalmines and lock ourselves to buildings. We squatted in houses, ate dumpstered food and cycled, walked and hitched the country. I wore lots of patches and badges for a while. I even tried to be vegan for a couple of years. There were lots and lots of meetings. Our activist ‘scene’ grew quite large for a time and we started to talk about creating a community to support one another, about building a future together. That was when it all started falling apart.
Creating a self-sufficient, committed community in the city would involve purchasing, at great expense, land that had been stolen from Maori, renting from unreliable property investors or squatting rare sites until we were moved on. Then there were the politics of just getting along while trying to be as radically progressive as possible, and the problem of who was in or not given that we lived in one of the most transient cities in the country and some people had strong ideas of what type of people they wanted to live and work with. It was a nightmare and delusional to say the least.
On top of that, we kept losing. The tipping point was when I and several others were raided by police and jailed for a month facing serious charges.
Those few weeks in jail were stark and I never want to go back, but it opened my eyes to a world I had never seen, a world occupied mostly by society’s rejects: Maori, Polynesian, the poor, drug addicts, prostitutes, gangs. My sheltered little self-righteous activist world seemed a joke, a choice in which I didn’t really think and work strategically to help create a better world. I’d been leading a privileged life that meant little to these people in the ‘real world’. On a personal level I also realised my own fragility: the fear of being trapped and having no future. My mother’s continual warnings of self-care and being more aware of the reality of others living on this planet finally made sense.
For a long time I had wanted to leave the city and live on some land where I could grow food and enjoy the beautiful things of this planet such as forests and rivers – while still actively working for a better world for everyone. I had also wanted to go back to where my dad’s whanau were, to my turangawaewae. I don’t remember any words but somehow he must have fed into my subconscious when I was young, the need to care for our land as kaitiaki.
My partner and I wrote a letter to someone we knew who lived in my kui’s papakainga asking if we could move there for a while and live in my tent. After a short but anxious wait, we received his reply: he had asked the kaumatua and they were happy for us to come. We packed our bags, my tent and the dog and hitched our way there. We planned to stay for two months. Almost four years later we are still here, raising our young son. We have helped kickstart a community movement against several giant petroleum companies and our corrupt government, and we’re helping rebuild a self-sufficient village. Beyond the occasional self-doubt and frustration with life, I’m happy.
Why did I tell you all that? Throughout my years of trying to work out solutions for this mess we’re all in, I realised that it’s only through finding real community that we can truly have the grounding, collective wisdom and strength in numbers to resist the shitty things in this world such as capitalist corporations and corrupt governments with their systems of exploitation and inequality.
The only problem with this picture is that to find that community I had to find the land to which those people were dedicated. That might not seem like a problem until you think about where most people on this planet now live – not on their own land, or land that could support a community, but in cities. That was the problem when my activist friends and I tried to become a community from within a city. It was impossible to decide to move to some land because everyone wanted something different or they had no means of getting there anyway.
I am privileged to have found land and a community to live with. I did not need money to move here and if I didn’t whakapapa to this people I might have struggled to be accepted here and particularly to be able to speak in meetings – although I know of many rural Maori and non-Maori intentional communities desperately in need of people to come and live with them. I am also privileged because of the sacrifices my people made to keep and maintain the land against years of muru raupatu, poverty, corruption and depression.
But living here has not come without lots of hard work. I’ve had to bite my tongue and listen and watch and learn. I’ve had to work with criticism, suspicion and little support. I’ve had to face my shyness and prejudices to get along with people who are at first glance very different from me and to learn a new language and culture. The speed and arrogance of the city took a long time to get out of my bones but they had to go so that I could merge with this place and these people. I still have a lot more work to do on that front but things are already far better than what I had in the city.
And what now of the ‘activism’? A few months ago we were forced to take on about 15 massive petroleum corporations who had been given government permits and council consent to mine throughout our region, on- and off-shore.
Prior to moving here, I would have formed a small group and we would have gone out and protested, but not this time. We took it to our community first. We debated the issue, got to the guts of it and came out in strong opposition, together. We then took it to the next community along the coast and to other communities across the country. We formed a small group to put the issue in the media and debate it publicly and we now have many hundreds of people whom we can call on for support.
For my first time ever, we have the media almost completely on our side. Perhaps it’s a fluke; perhaps it’s timing, with increased awareness of climate change and of the massive scale of the industry expansion. But maybe it’s because we are changing the way we approach the situation.
We’re not just rushing out and saying, “Oy, you suck, go away”. We’re not going out as radical activists but as ordinary local people who care deeply about the place we call home and we’re saying, “Hey, this is our place you’re threatening and there’s heaps of us and we’re organising and networking and we’re going to stand up to you to protect it as best we can. We’re going to win over your workers, your voters, your suppliers, your families and your markets. It’s going to cost you and your shareholders aren’t going to like that.”
The main difference though is that I’m not thinking antagonistically. I’m thinking about disempowered communities and empowerment. It’s not How can we fight them? but How can we become more powerful so that they can’t hurt us? Focussing on building allies, not enemies, is a tactic I saw being used successfully by Dine and Hopi in Arizona who forced out a mining company recently after years of polluting and resource theft. So far it’s working well for us here.
Another thing I’ve learned is to not act morally superior. Our group was recently called “philosophically opposed to fossil fuels” by a petroleum PR guy. A few years ago I might not have realised the detriment of this label. Nowadays I try to ground my politics in the real issues that mean something to most people. Rather than say fossil fuels are bad, for example, I say we’re using them up way too much and too fast for the planet to cope and for our children to live well. I find this approach much more acceptable and engaging.
I also try not to be judgmental – I was always being accused of this and rightly so. The problems of the world are collective so individual solutions are not going to work. Being vegan or refusing to drive for example can just make our lives more difficult while the problems don’t lessen. We should do what we feel capable of on an individual level but the real challenge is changing society and that can’t be done by judging people and making them feel bad. That doesn’t mean being falsely nice to people but trying to understand the bigger things that stop us all from living within the planet’s means, whether it’s social pressures, poverty or just habits that are scary or hard to break.
So I am now involved in rebuilding our papakainga to be self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable. We have a few community gardens that are providing fresh organic food for several families and large hui year-round. We are working on renewable energy systems. We have our water supply secured. We are fencing and replanting streams. We are farming. We are repairing buildings and cleaning up the land. We are starting fundraising businesses to employ whanau and we have set up a monthly hauora. People are also moving home. But most importantly, the community is coming together for the first time in decades and discussing longheld hurts and fears and coming out better at the other end. I am honoured to be here in these inspiring times.
I reflect on things often. There are a few things that stand out since my homecoming as feeding this change. The first are tikanga maori and rongo. I would translate tikanga maori as finding and following the natural law that maintains balance between all things – between tangata and whenua, atua and wairua. It starts with discovering and knowing whakapapa, our inseparable connection to all things, to our tupuna and to our uri. Coming home has reconnected me.
Rongo I would translate as peace: life without war, time to cultivate crops, gather food, study the world around us, care for ourselves and to bear and nurture children. It’s been good for me to step out and have some rongo time to ground me and remind me again what we’re struggling for.
The next is good leadership – based on tikanga maori and rongo. Leadership doesn’t have to be hierarchichal but it needs to help others grow. The practice of humility, patience, wise speech, calmness, honesty, respect and the ability to truly hear others and understand them is an amazing skill that I see amongst some people in my community. I honour that wise leadership and attempt to follow and walk alongside them in my own infant-like, clumsy way. I’ve got a long way to go still but I feel like I’ve finally found the right path.
Ki nga morehu.
Ko te po te kaihari i te ra.
Ko te mate te kaihari i te oranga.