16 May 2008

The end of the world as we know it

Praying mantisAmelie looks out the window, at the ominous cloud, the strengthening wind, the spray whipped back from the breaking surf.
“It's looking threatening,” she says.
A few minutes later the rain begins; a squall, a wild wind from the South. The last surfers scurry from the beach back to their car; a fisherman joins them, rod and bucket in hand. The beach is left to the birds, the surf, the weather, the cast-up logs and shells and kelp.

When the rain passes, moving up the coast, we cross the creek on the pontoon, pulling ourselves across the slow flow on a simple, effective contraption of empty oil drums and steel grating, and walk to the beach. Sand after rain seems like hope or the promise Gymnopilus junonius at Farewell Spitof forgiveness—a reminder that after we've gone, when the last human passes, the world will continue, and will begin to erase the signs of our time on Earth. Like the maze of footprints on the beach and the excavations and constructions of small children with plastic spades and buckets, the traces of our activities will be erased by weather and time and non-human lives.

When and how this will happen, I don't know. I do suspect it will happen not catastrophically and globally but gradually and patchily. Human existence, already grim in much of the world, will become grimmer, then desperate, and the expansion of regions where humans cannot live will accelerate. There, in those deserted and ruined places, the record of human life will begin to fade. Most probably, little else will replace us because those areas will be too arid.

But sun and wind can erase as effectively as rain.


It's not that no one cares. Plenty of people care. But not enough people care, and most people don't care enough. When Green Party M.P. Nandor Tanczos spoke at Massey University a couple of weeks ago, he began by playing a clip from the R.E.M. song, “It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”. It wasn't entirely in jest. Climate change, he said, is just one symptom of what he called “our abusive relationship with the planet”. Our accelerating demand for energy won't be solved by biofuels—already accused of causing famines—nor nuclear solutions, which face intransigent problems of how to dispose of the waste and of security [1], and, Nandor Tanczosfor New Zealand, the lack of infrastructure and other support for nuclear power generation and the unmanageable size of any nuclear power plant [2].

Pointing out that human populations face the same constraints as other animals, in particular being limited by food, he noted that the world's fisheries “are in free fall.” On current trends, he claimed, this is the last century in which wild seafood will be readily available.

Sources of easily extracted metals are also diminishing rapidly, and while the metals are not actually “used up”, the economic and environmental costs of extracting them from less convenient sources are likely to increase hugely.

The list goes on. To his credit, Nandor offered suggestions for what he described as a gradual descent rather than a crash landing. What he didn't offer—because, I believe, no one can—was the prospect of future in which we can sustain our present way of life, our standard of living. Yet where's the evidence that enough people care enough about the crisis to avert it, or even soften it? New Zealand's Green Party garners roughly 5% of the polls (give or take a few percent, and depending on which survey one chooses), and the Parliamentary election later this year will be fought on who promises the largest tax cuts, the state of the economy, and fear of a lowered, or even static, standard of living.

Buy (into the spin) now; pay (the environmental and social consequences) later.

Of course we all care about the environment. But if caring for the environment means driving our cars less, or more carefully, or—god forbid—paying a miniscule tax to mitigate the damage we do, no thanks. If I recycle my empty bottles and replace my conventional light bulbs with CFLs I'm doing my bit; I can justifiably complain about the price of petrol. In short, we all care about the environment, but too many of us care only as long as it costs us nothing.

Snowboarder on Turoa skifield, Mt Ruapehu

After Nandor's speech I listened to one of my friends talking about some of the rarified research being conducted at Massey. He seemed frustrated, not by what he’d just heard, but because for him it put that rarified research into perspective—and not a particularly favourable perspective.
“We’re facing these crises; all these crucial questions we need to answer,” he said, “and they’re fluffing about investigating the mating habits of Indian ants [3].”

The comment reminded me of Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous remark, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.”[4]

I thought about the justification for comments like these, and my own pessimism about where we're headed; our apparent failure to convert concern into action. Should we abandon esoteric research; should I stop photographing rocks?

It's a hard one. It's tempting to think we “should” act responsibly, but how happy would we be if we insisted on acting responsibly? Sure, some of us would—and do—feel satisfied and happy knowing (or thinking) we're doing the right thing, but what about the rest of us who, if we sacrificed ourselves for the greater good, would spend our lives feeling thwarted by our sense of duty—in effect, resenting the conscience that denied us the right to pursue what we most wanted? Enough, I guess, to make the world a less happy place than it would otherwise have been.

On the other hand, if we all chased our dreams and abandoned any sense of social or environmental responsibility, the result would be an enormous increase in the number of people who, because of the agonising circumstances they'd find themselves in as a result of our self-interested inaction, would be unable to chase their dreams.


At dawn we walk the track past the monstrous new house squatting where it can watch the entire beach. Everything that happens on the beach falls, potentially, under the gaze of the house's occupants; every life on the beach can be scrutinised from the enormous glass windows. I wonder if the occupants considered this a price to pay for their vista or whether, instead, they enjoy the feeling of dominance? Maybe they never even considered it; maybe they were blinded by the prospect of the view. Sometimes we can't (or don't, or refuse to) foresee the consequences of our actions, but the consequences arise anyway. When they're no more serious than sometimes seeing what you'd White-faced heron at Flounder Bayrather not see, like “your” beach swarming with people, it's no big deal, but it's a different matter if your actions contribute to the extinction of species, poverty and starvation, and oil-motivated wars—to name a few examples.

So what am I doing wandering this beach, photographing gulls and waves, water and the light, when the world is going to pieces? Writing and photographing are ways I share, ways I show, ways I encourage others to look, see, and think. Is this justifiable? I trust, or at least hope sincerely, that these things make the world a better place, but to that end, am I making the best use of my abilities? The problem is that even if I were making the best use of my abilities, those abilities might not be particularly useful for making the world a better place. Maybe other things, things I'm neither good at nor enjoy, would contribute more to saving snow leopards or wild places or human lives. Logic in that form suggests I should try to get the best-paying job I can and donate all my non-essential income to organisations like the snow leopard conservancy or the snow leopard trust [5], the yellow-eyed penguin trust, Conservation International, Oxfam, or Amnesty International.

But, I can't say I'm happy with the idea of sacrificing my own happiness to make the world better. It feels wrong, although I don't know if that feeling arises from the universal ability of human beings to rationalise what we do. And counter-arguments have been proposed; for example, it's hard to predict whether or to what degree esoteric research will eventually lead to “practically” useful applications, and, would a world without artists and people who make us laugh really be a better world?

Further along the beach, two oystercatchers run towards the lagoon, their swift, pattering feet leaving long lines of tracks in the rain-cleaned sand. A red-billed gull sidles towards us as we rest on a driftwood log. Those gulls are ever the opportunists, always ready to exploit us. It makes a change, I suppose, but when we've gone—when all of us have gone, and the beaches remain unmarked by our footprints from one rain to the next—red-billed gulls will survive, perhaps finding life a little less easy but still managing. Verbascum thapsusShould that thought be a comfort? Perhaps, but it can also be an inducement to apathy: why bother trying, when we'll be gone soon and the wildlife—what's left of it—can take over?

So, I find myself once again in that state of not knowing, of uncertainty—but not the delicious uncertainty of great possibility. It's more a feeling that time's running out; that our options are becoming more and more limited; a feeling that possibility has begun to contract, and I'm not sure how to reconcile the desire to make the most of what's left with the urge to fight to protect what I love. Perhaps, out of that tension, I'll find a way of going about my life that works, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, I'll carry on doing what I can—at least some of it—and trusting that where I'm doing better than most I'll be seen as an example, and where I'm not doing so well, I'll be treated with enough understanding and compassion to encourage me to do better. And if I treat others that way, and if enough of us do the same, we might just make a difference.

Sastrugi above Turoa, looking across to Girdlestone

1. He also mentioned rapidly diminishing stockpiles of uranium, but there are good reasons to question whether uranium reserves really will disappear as quickly as some (including Nandor) claim.
The IAEA doesn't think so.
2. Even a small plant would supply a substantial proportion of New Zealand's power, so the backup when such a plant has to switch off would have to be correspondingly large. Moreover, nuclear power production doesn't follow load (demand), meaning the non-nuclear power plants would have to compensate for the fluctuating load; this would have serious economic consequences for some of those plants.
The Chair of New Zealand's Electricity Commission explains these points clearly.
3. I’ve changed the example to something hypothetical. Apologies to anyone studying the mating habits of Indian ants.
4. Dyer, Geoff 2005. The Ongoing Moment. London: Abacus. 285 pp. ISBN 0 349 11888 4. [P. 97: “'The world is going to pieces,' Cartier-Bresson chided in the 1930s, 'and people like [Ansel] Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.'”]
5. Don't ask me about the difference between these two organisations. I have no idea, nor do I know why they haven't pooled their resources.

Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1. One of those who might inherit the Earth.
2. And another:
Gymnopilus junonius, commonly called "big laughing gym (or Jim)" at Farewell Spit. Identified for me by Dr Peter Buchanan, Landcare Research. Peter says, "This probably introduced species is fairly common on a range of hosts (esp. pines, eucalypts, but also pohutukawa), typically fruiting at the base of stumps, dying trees, or on pruned live trunks. Although bitter and inedible it is reported to be hallucinogenic—hence the common name above (also known as giant flame-cap)."
3. Green party M.P. Nandor Tanczos at Massey University, Palmerston North, 30 April 2008.
4. Turoa skifield, Mt Ruapehu.
5. White-faced heron, April 2008. One of a pair living on and around the beach beneath the enormous windows.
6. The common weed, woolly mullein, Verbascum thapsus. No. 3 Line, Pohangina Valley, May 2008.
7. Sastrugi and Girdlestone, Mt Ruapehu; winter 2005.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Anonymous said...

I read the BBC article on plummeting populations of wildlife just a few minutes before reading your blog entry.

I am trying hard not to despair of humanity's relationship with the one home we have, and, in all likelihood, ever will have. I mean of course this beautiful planet we are lucky enough to inhabit.

Anonymous said...

If that "esoteric" research contributes even the slightest to the already myriad reasons for awe and wonder at the non-human world, I'd say it's thoroughly justified. More awe leads to less hubris - or so one can hope.

Thanks for framing so well this dilemma that haunts so many of us.

MB said...

Regarding Cartier-Bresson's comment, I can't imagine being happy (or healthy, for that matter) in a world without art, nor without doing creative work. But I think it's a dilemma that does not need to be considered in all-or-nothing terms. I put my skills "in the service of." Perhaps you already have considered this, Pete, but any conservation group worth its salt near you would be thrilled, for example, to use your fine photos should you choose to donate some for their use or provide at minimal cost. A local photographer here speaks of this as his "form of tithing," and it is a way to help make a difference.

Unknown said...

Keep on taking those photos of rocks ;-)

As for the rest, I really don't know how to respond. I do what I can to lessen my impact on the environment. Inuit friends tell me that the summers are longer and hotter than ever before, that winters see greater fluctuations, especially in the winds, than elders remember from their youth. However, they tell this as their four stroke engines skidoo or quad engines idle or in our homes that have oil generated radiant heat and diesel generated electricity over a cup of Columbian coffee that was brewed on land that was formerly a rain forest... I see were you are coming from ...

polona said...

as long as greed and fanatism will continue to rule the world, there's little and individual can do.
well, i know i try to cause as little damage as possible, but that's nothing in the global scheme of things... too few think that way, i'm afraid

Ruahines said...

Tena Koe Pete,
Kia ora for this Pete. These are the sorts of questions and issues I have only begun to ponder in many ways, changes I have to consider and implement in my own life. To be useful. As I head out to the saturday morning markets you have given me much to consider. As always, your words and photos resonate with me. Kia ora.

Beth said...

As is often the case, Dave said it already. Thanks you for stating so honestly this internal struggle many of us share.

When Cartier-Bresson made that remark, the world was quite different, and his human concerns probably loomed larger than those about the natural world. Not the case now: art that shows the human condition is important, and so is art that shows animals, plants, the land and sea and yes, even rocks.

I don't think we shouldn't go against our own nature and what calls to us most passionately and deeply. Art is a mirror of the creation that goes on all the time in nature, and it is vital that human art continue, especially in times of war and strife, loss and despair. Of course your work in this field matters - and you are far more than a photographer of inanimate landscapes!

I think the paralysis that results from helplessness in the face of the world's huge problems is an even bigger problem than apathy, because it often affects the most gifted and sensitive people. I see this all the time in people who write to me on my blog, and a large part of my work is trying to show them -- as well as myself - that living and creating, acting and loving are not meaningless. I'm very grateful for the way your words and photographs help me.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is people who deny their gifts--both the gift of talents that they did not create but nonetheless possess and the gift of the world, that lovely blue-and-green aggie spinning in light and dark--who create the most difficulty for themselves and others and the planet.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Pete, I am a cynical shit. Went to the UN climate change conference in Bali last year and saw big wig politicians travelling business class with huge gas guzzling carbon footprints, but yet showed they were reducing greenhouses gases by riding a bike 1 km from the hotel to the conference centre. The could have walked as the bike tyre rubber may have caused some pollution. Al Gore is one of the few I respect. We in the Red Cross have a Climate Change centre in the Hague and Madeleen Helmer is a real leader. Website: www.climatecentre.org

I enjoy your superb photos and can see you love of biodiversity and the environment.

Thanks mate


Anonymous said...

Your last paragraph contains the core of the dilemma, and probably a real answer to it. You are writing about empathy, with all the knowledge and experience that the word implies. Empathy just might help the world to continue going round. Wouldn't certainty be a dangerous thing in this context?
I just work hard to create a miniscule haven - and it spreads in some very surprising ways!

Crafty Green Poet said...

taking photos of rocks and birds, writing with awareness about the world around you - essential to living a good life, a sustainable life. Also being true to oneself means a happier more balanced life.

In the richer countries most people's lifestyles are unsustainable, but how many people are prepared to consider what that really means, how much they will need to give up?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post.

The dueling snow leopard societies are a nice example of the glamour-based agenda that underlies so much conservation energy. I suppose this connects to our ancient, perhaps hard-wired tendency to see animals as metaphors for desirable human qualities. I wonder: Does NZ's relative lack of charismatic fauna make it easier for people there to think in integrated, ecological terms, such as climate change would seem to require?

pohanginapete said...

Gerry, I know what you mean. It's possible we (meaning humans) might make it through, but even if we do, it's almost unbearable to think about what we'll have lost. Try as I might, I can't yet manage to understand the world through the eyes of those who assert, for example, that if whales were wiped out it wouldn't bother them too much because “the beach would still be a good place for a picnic.”

Dave: true. I'm sure many of our problems have are rooted in too little awe and wonder. Moreover, the difficulties of trying to decide what's “useful” or “relevant” are mostly intractable, so I'm very reluctant to say so-called “esoteric” research has no “practical” benefit. (And thanks for the link. Appreciated.)

A good point about the “ tithing”, MB. Thanks for reminding me. I have in the past done that (although with little uptake—although perhaps I should work harder at that). However, over the last month or two I've put a lot of work into helping with the Aotearoa Environmental
Film Festival
, and that's another way I can make a contribution.

Cheers C'est moi; thanks for the support. I see similar examples in New Zealand and it helps me realise the responsibility lies with individuals — but I have to admit I probably wouldn't survive where you are without decent heating ;^)

Polona, the number of people who can do anything measurable on a global scale must be infinitesimal. But I do believe small things are much more powerful than they appear, and who knows what impact something apparently trivial might have? The butterfly effect of chaos theory tends to support that claim. Thanks for doing what you can.

Robb, I'm glad it's helping you think about ways you can do something in your own life. Looking forward to discussing ideas with you and Tara :^)

Thank you Beth. The distinction between paralysis and apathy's an interesting one, but the outcome seems identical — inaction. However, you've made a very important point, because the solutions for overcoming apathy seem vastly different from those for overcoming paralysis. Defeating apathy, I think, means finding motivations that convince the apathetic; defeating paralysis means offering solutions that convince the sceptical. I don't know which is harder—all I know is that both are appallingly difficult, and vitally important.

Marly, I agree that those who deny how wonderful a gift we've been given in the form of this planet are most likely to damage it. As for those who deny their own talents, that's a tragedy, but I'm not sure it necessarily creates difficulties for others or our world. It's primarily a personal tragedy; it can be intensely frustrating and sad to see gifted athlete, for example, drift off into a life of sedentary gaming, but that doesn't necessarily mean people like that will trash the Earth. While I only partly agree with what you've said, I do appreciate the thought. Thanks :^)

A bit of cynicism's not a bad thing, Bob! I've seen things similar to what you saw at the conference, and my reaction's also been cynicism. I suppose some of those movers and shakers might achieve results that substantially outweigh the environmental costs of their carbon footprints, but biking 1 km? Yes, I'm with you on that one. Thanks for the link to the Climate Change centre; I'll check it out. And thanks for the kind words.

P.E.A., I'm highly suspicious of certainty! And I'm privileged to have enjoyed that “miniscule haven”. Thanks :^)

CGP, I'm reasonably sure that if we try to save the world by encouraging people to lower their standard of living, we're doomed. It just won't happen. I wish I could offer a solution, but all I can suggest is what I wrote in the last paragraph. Thanks for your thoughts.

Jarrett, thank you. I must point out that I don't know what sort of politics led to the existence of two such similar snow leopard conservation societies. I really hope they're at least co-operating. I do note that the Snow Leopard Conservancy lists the International Snow Leopard Trust on their “Partners” page, but can find no reciprocal mention on the Trust's page. What this means, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it adds nothing to the conservation of snow leopards. Still, you make a good point about this sort of competition, and I suspect it's even worse among some of the better-known (human) aid agencies.
As for your question about NZ, that's a hard one to answer. I don't know how much a paucity of charismatic fauna affects the way we think about these issues—not greatly, I suspect. What's probably more significant is our general insignificance on the world stage—in particular, we're small and geographically isolated—and consequently we tend to pay attention to the rest of the world to a greater extent than some more “influential” countries. That does give us a somewhat different perspective on global ecological issues. Sometimes that's good; sometimes, as in the current clamour to abrogate our carbon emissions responsibilities because “we should be followers, not leaders”, it's not.

Avus said...

Dark and thoughtful musings to ponder on, Pete. I guess we are just too many and too greedy.
I think there could be much trial and tribulation, wars and famine ahead for the human race. But then it will find its level. Some will creep out from the shattered remains of this "civilisation", to start again - fewer and wiser - -I hope!

Emma said...

I can't say much more than--let alone improve upon--what others have already said here in your comments, Pete. But for what it's worth, and perhaps simplistically, I try to live such that when I go to bed at night and when I leave the house in the morning, I am satisfied that I've done all I can do, in a reasonable fashion. Love is my first priority and my first order, and I find more and more that that one word covers a multitude of tasks and objects. Echoing what some others have said, perhaps it is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the number of ills in our world that leads many (most) of us to inaction. I'm guilty as well.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I came across an interesting passage written by Ed Abbey today. I thought it fit well with your recent post, I hope you do not my sharing it here with you:
"Something like a shadow has fallen between present and past, an abyss wide as war that cannot be bridged by any tangible connection, so that memory is undermined and the image of our beginnings betrayed, dissolved, rendered not mythical but illusory. We have connived in the murder of our own origins. little wonder that those who travel nowhere but in their own heads, reducing all existence to the space of one skull, maintain dreamily that only the pinpoint tip of the moment is real. They are right: A fanatical greed, an arrogant stupidity, has robbed them of the past and transformed their future into a nightmare. They deny the world because the only world they know has denied them.
The admistrators laying out the blueprints for the technological totalitarianism of tomorrow like to think of the earth as a big space capsule, a machine for living. They are wrong: The earth is not a mechanism but an organism, a being with its own life and its own reasons, where the support and sustenance of the human animal is incidental. If man in his newfound power and vanity persists in the attempt to remake the planet in his own image, he will succeed in destroying only himself - not the planet. The earth will survive our most ingenious folly". Abbey concludes that though the war against this folly is only beginning humankind can face that machine and stop it, take it apart and reassemble it, should we wish, on lines entirely new. "There is, after all, a better way to live. The poets and the prophets have been trying to tell us about it for three thousand years". Edward Abbey, from the essay Shadows from the Big Woods, contained in his book of essays, The Journey Home.
Sorry to be so long winded Pete but the synchroncity between my own questions, your post, and coming across this, inspires me and I felt it was worth sharing. Kia ora Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Avus, I guess it does sound pretty dark. I hope I'm wrong. Part of me wants to live to find out what happens but another part doesn't want to live in the kind of world I expect will survive. Whether any humans remain to see it is moot, but I doubt they'll be any wiser.

Well said, Emma. Love for others and for the world must surely be the impetus for action — who could stand by and watch suffering and do nothing, yet still claim they loved who or what was suffering? As for being overwhelmed, I'm sure you're right when you say many or most of us feel that way, and I wonder whether we don't hear enough of the positive; in particular, it seems rare ever to get any acknowledgment that what we're doing is actually helping. Maybe it'd help to get some feedback that our efforts are indeed helping.

Robb, thanks for the Ed Abbey quotation. Good to know he, at least, was optimistic that the world will survive us. I'm very much looking forward to re-reading The Monkey Wrench Gang — thanks!

Anonymous said...

Pete, there have been times in my life, too, when I've been despondent about what the human race is doing to itself and to the world. But in the end I find I have to have hope, otherwise I'd fall into the paralysis of pessimism.

There definitely are positive things happening. Recently I heard a radio interview with John Pontin that really did show that there are people who care both about the world and about other people, and who are truly making a difference. Here's a link to a brief description of a book he has written about the project, which was begun to make an English village zero waste and has since expanded mightily:


And here's a link to the project:


Regarding your writing and photography, remember the ripple effect. I, for one, have been thinking more about things environmental than I'm sure I would otherwise have done had I not discovered your blog a couple of years ago, and in some small ways that thinking has been translated into action. In turn, perhaps what I do and say touches another person ... and so on.

As for the photos in this post: I particularly enjoy the first and the last. What an alien the praying mantis looks, and what detail of the head! I see they've evolved from the same ancient order as cockroaches, so with that sort of staying-power, they probably will indeed be among those that eventually inherit the earth. In the last image, the texture of the snow, and especially the light falling on the contours of the shadowed areas in the foreground and the way those lines surround the bright patch, have had me returning many times for another look. (I find it hard to get the right exposure for snow.)

Anonymous said...

Sorry to take so long to respond to this post, Pete. As more and more this question fills me with anguish the harder it is to know what to say. I've gone far beyond outrage and ire, it is almost a daily state of mind now that affects everything I see. I walk through this ruined landscape that I live in now and it is like I hear this silent grief of things disappearing, or, as the Japanese used to believe, the keening of the gods, who inhabit everything on Earth, as they one-by-one disappear, with no second thought given to their existence.

I've always wondered how it is that we can do something about the world and more and more I feel that we can't. I just cannot imagine people giving up what they have. The only way that change will come about is if there is major upheaval that puts all of us on the verge of extinction. Even then I truly wonder about our ability to face dire survival with dignity and wisdom. If we can't even think about our and the planet's well-being while it is healthy, why would we do anything but scrabble for scraps when we live hand to mouth?

When I think of trying to find a way to use education to make a difference this is my reasoning: If you want to protect the world you have to love it. To love it you have to know it. To know it you have see it. To see it you have to spend time in it.

It's like knowing a person and loving a child... you can't think of purely practically reasons for loving a child because a lot of a child's existence has no practical application, in fact a child can be distinctly inconvenient. And yet people still love their children and protect them. Why? And how do you get people to see the Earth in the same way they see a child? With the same tenderness and unquestioning reverence?

Perhaps we can take a lesson from the native Americans around Mexico and the southern region of the United States. There was a huge, prosperous civilization there of which little information remains. There have been all sorts of theories about why these civilizations disappeared, one of them being that when the environment could no longer support the numbers of people and the demands the populations put on the land, the entire populace voluntarily decided to leave their homes and cities and return to simplified living on the land, namely the people we see today as the Maya.

Can we also do something like that, though, and would the numbers of our population today allow us to survive? What exactly is a sustainable and appropriate way to live without destroying everything around us?

What a grievous time we live in. I'm truly exhausted trying to find some way to get people to see the world as an integral part of not just our physical needs, but a touchstone for our spirits.

As to apathy I often use the reality of my diabetes to remember how fragile our existence is. If I don't take care of my body the diabetes will kill me. There is no dilly dallying around about this; every day I face the fluctuations of how my body reacts to beneficial and ill treatment. I think the Earth works the same way, but moves in denominations much bigger than we small beings can really comprehend. I think it is silly that so many of us deny that any problem exists and this reminds me how easy it is for me to live in denial of my disease and pretend everything is okay. No one wants to face unpleasant things or talk about "dark" issues. But one of the foundations of understanding life and happiness is an acceptance of the finality of death and then to learn from that. I don't think we have learned a damned thing so far.

Anne-Marie said...

Kia ora Pete. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I have been back to read it many times and have wanted to comment; but there's much in the post I don't know where to start! I've enjoyed reading the comments too.

I will say, though, that I adore your photo of the white-faced heron. The heron itself is beautiful; but I love the background too. Do you have any photos of the toreapango [oystercatcher]? I'd love to see one of those on your blog. They are one of my favourite coastal birds.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia ora mate

I have been thinking a lot about the environment lately as we are doing some quite exciting climate change programmes in Jakarat with slum dwellers and it seems much easier to get the poor to respond to climatew change issues better than the rich. Perhaps those final lines from one of Bob Dylan's song bring some sanity to it all...

There are rockets in the meadow abd ships upon the sea
The answers in a forest craved upon a tree
John loves Mary does anyone love me ?

or something like that.


robin andrea said...

I've been by to read this post twice. I have nothing profound to add. I am pessimistic. I recently read James Kunstler's book World Made By Hand, which explores a fictional United States after a crisis leaves us struggling with only 19th century technology. I am fully prepared to leave a much smaller footprint. It's the transition to those extended privations while living among my fellow citizens that generally scares me. Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is a more hopeful look, as it deletes humans in the first chapter, and then explores how the earth recovers. I think we are on an ever-quickening downward spiral. Still, it's more than okay to photograph rocks. It's a contribution of beauty. Something there can never be too much of.

pohanginapete said...

Peregrina, you're right about the importance of hope. I think there's another cause of what you term "the paralysis of pessimism", and that's the difficulty of knowing what to do. Confronted with a major problem and multiple courses of action, it's possible to become stymied — paralysed, I suppose — by being unable to choose. A little reflection should show how illogical that is, but because the problem is not just major, it's urgent, I think this is in fact what happens to many of us. Instead of facing the problem and doing something constructive, we resort to displacement activities like recreational shopping. Or blogging... But I'm glad some people, like the "converging world" group, and many "ordinary" people are doing something — and some non trivial things, too. And thanks for suggesting I might have begun a ripple — it's a generous and encouraging thought, and I deeply appreciate it.

Miguel, sorry I've taken so long to respond! (I've been house sitting, and taking the time to read, and think, and, yes, even write a little). I agree wholeheartedly when you say you can't imagine people giving up what they already have. I also agree with your chain of logic; that "protect: love: know: see: spend time" argument. Dave Pollard (whom I was privileged to have visit me recently) argues that, as humans, first we do what we must, then we do what's easy, then we do what's fun. It's potentially contentious, particularly regarding the order of the second and third items, but I think there's a lot of truth in it. The worrying thing is that nowhere is there any mention of doing what's important in the long term. Unfortunately, that first item — we do what we must — seems to be "we do what's important right now" and that doesn't include what's good for the planet. Dave also argues, and I agree, that the only way one can really influence others' behaviour is by showing that it works, that it has benefits, that it can be done. In other words, by being a model. I, too, came to that conclusion some time ago: it's next to impossible to change anyone's behaviour by arguing. I guess what we have to do, therefore, is, in Gandhi's words, to "be the change [we] want to see in the world".

Anne-Marie, I know you're doing more than most of us — you're doing more than talking and worrying about it, and I'm enormously grateful for that. Glad you liked the heron photo, too :^) — and yes, there's a photo of a torea pango on the 26 September 2007 post. There's also one from Waipapa Point in Southland, on the old Xanga blog (12 February 2005).

Bob, you're another who's doing far more than most, and my thanks to you also. I've often thought about trying to help directly, in some fashion similar to yours, but my special skills aren't in great demand — I have no medical training and no practical trade, for example. Maybe I'll keep looking for the best ways to take advantage of the skills I do have, and trust they'll make a difference. Cheers Bob.

Robin, thanks for the thumbs-up about continuing to photograph rocks (so to speak). Maybe it will encourage others to spend more time in the real world — the first step in Miguel's logical chain — and if it does so, then it's contributing something worthwhile. I know you and Roger are some of those prepared to do what too many others won't — and maybe, by showing that a good life is possible with a smaller footprint, you are indeed the change you want to see in the world. Thanks Robin.

Patry Francis said...

"not enough people care and most people don't care enough." That's the frustration so many of us feel, isn't it? Sometimes I also give in to the theory (or truth) that my small efforts make so little difference-- why bother? But lately, I've been more hopeful. Lately, I've been feeling that diminishing resources will force all of us--those who don't care, and those who don't care enough--to change.

pohanginapete said...

Patry, I don't recall exactly when that statement arose, but it was very likely when I'd read or heard about yet another triumph of materialism over what's truly profound and important. It could have been (although it wasn't) the way New Zealander Scott Dixon's Indy 500 win was headlined here as "the biggest payout" any NZ sportsperson has ever received. The win was a great achievement, but once again it flagged just how desperate we kiwis (and most others) are to "succeed" — meaning scoring as much money as possible. And, if one suggests money, beyond the tiny amount necessary to avoid grinding poverty, has no value in terms of what's truly worthwhile, one's considered at best an idealist — meaning not worth the time of day.

I wish I could share your optimism, Patry — and sometimes I do — but most of the time I think the diminishing of resources will probably result in a competitive scramble for what's left. It's a prisoner's dilemma: if each person acts in his own best interest, all of us end up with the worst possible outcome. (That, incidentally, is the huge lie about the free market). And the only solution to a prisoner's dilemma is to avoid it, and the way to do that is to co-operate.

Perhaps cynically, I also gain a little hope from another characteristic of the prisoner's dilemma — it's based on the assumption of rational behaviour. So, maybe there's hope after all.

But most of all, what does give me hope is that people like you, and the others who've commented here, really are prepared to do what's needed. So, to rephrase my statement, maybe enough of us will care enough, and we'll make it through to enjoy not just the shadow of a once-wonderful world, but a world in which it really is a joy to live.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
It is often the same as listening to a Van Morrison song as the moment I just experienced. I can often listen to a song many times before I get it.
I just looked at the last photo by Girdlestone. Black and White, and all those Grays! It is really stunning. Kia ora Pete

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Robb.

Bill said...


I am incapable of taking this all in. I have had a series of responses to your post, all glancing, all, well, paltry.

So I take off at vectors. I go places. I think of late of how, it is built in to me the perspective of things coming to an end, since it is my own nature to come to an end myself. Yes it is big gap, a big distinction between great pieces of life coming to extinction and my own small life coming to a natural end as my species continues rampant. But personally for me, coming to an end is orderly and desirable. I ask, then, why should it not also be orderly and desirable for larger pieces of life to come to an end as well? How can I apply values to these larger pieces of life, that I do not have for myself, who hopes to die?

Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful essay, both in words and pictures. Thank you.

I am a student, by hobby, of eschatology. I almost consider it a coping mechanism - trying to give myself the ability to step back and look at our destruction from an academic, rather than a personal, standpoint.

I do think things are going to get a lot worse. But I also feel that people are starting to see, however slowly, that they can't keep this lifestyle up. And that gives me hope. Not faith. But hope. Faith can be followed blindly, hope must be pursued, the sparks fanned. (I am also a strong advocate of personal democracy & e-democracy organization)

But this really was a touching piece.


pohanginapete said...

Bill, that's often how I feel too. Incapable of grasping all the ideas, so many of which seem to conflict. Sometimes I take the easy way out and switch off, but if I can muster the energy I can occasionally turn the confusion and uncertainty to good use. I guess I should clarify that I don't see anything necessarily evil or otherwise terrible about coming to an end. I suspect immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be, but of course I can't (yet) speak from experience. If I manage it, I'll let you know. But, two things, prompted by your thoughts: first, the manner of coming to an end probably has a large bearing on the extent to which it's desirable; and second, the knowledge that things (including me) do come to an end seems to be the strongest of all arguments for cherishing every moment of what we have, whether it's ourselves or larger/other pieces of life. Good to see you here, Bill. Thanks for the thoughts.

Herbert, thank you. I think there's a lot to be said for coping mechanisms like that; to attempt to stand back from a problem and look at it objectively is seldom, if ever, wasted effort. I'm encouraged by your hope; however, I remain fairly pessimistic because I doubt the change in attitude will happen fast enough and radically enough to prevent so much heart-rending loss. On the other hand, I do accept the argument that those who will grow up in a world that seems like a shadow of what I've enjoyed won't feel the loss so keenly, because they won't have had that direct experience. But that seems like a small consolation for me.
Good point about the faith/hope distinction. Thanks, Herbert.

Susannah Anderson said...

"So what am I doing wandering this beach, photographing gulls and waves, water and the light, when the world is going to pieces?"

My mom taught me a rule that I have ever since tried to follow:

If you borrow it, return it in as good or better shape than you got it.

(If you wore it, wash it. If you ripped it, mend it. Invisibly. If you drove it, fill the gas tank. That sort of thing.)

I see my actions in the world in the same light. I can't make everything right, but I can leave things just a little bit better than I found them.

pohanginapete said...

Weeta, that's a great point; one that had slipped to the back of my mind. I suppose it's akin to the exhortation to people who visit wild places, i.e. "Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints," although your point goes a little further. Of course, the apostles of progress are likely to have a particular notion of 'leaving things a little better', so I suppose (to continue the metaphor) the devil is in the details. Still, I think the principle takes a lot of beating. Thanks for pointing it out.