WOULD THE REAL CLEAN GREEN NEW ZEALAND PLEASE STAND UP?
It’s a sunny winter day in Montpellier, and Emmanuelle and I are four storeys high in her apartment building at the kitchen table the day before the Paris attacks when she says, “I don’t want to go to New Zealand. Not yet.”
I grin. “What’s stopping you?” I say.
We’ve been talking about the dark side of Cuba for the last three hours non-stop, and we’ve finally moved on to if money were no object and if you could go anywhere in the world, what’s next?
Emmanuelle shrugs, smiles and says, “It just sounds like such a wonderful place. I’m afraid I would never leave.”
“No place is paradise,” I fire back. “We have our fair share of problems.”
I remember a certain long rant I wrote on ecosystem and conservation challenges in New Zealand in the Green Room – it was so long they had to cut it to Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 – and try to summarise, throwing in some social and political commentary where possible.
“New Zealand ain’t some paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” I say, “People think of NZ as ‘clean and green’ but here’s the truth: it’s an image, and a damn good one, thanks to a great marketing arm of our Ministry for Tourism. We have one of the worst losses of biodiversity on record; we’ve lost two-thirds of our forests, drained 90% of our wetlands to make way for fossil fuel intensive sheep-and-dairy farming, about 200 native bird species have gone extinct and NZ did so badly for climate change that at the Doha COP, we were awarded the ‘Colossal Fossil’ award – traditionally only given to Canada for the previous five years – for doing the worst for climate change, stalling negotiations, refusing to sign up to credible, binding commitments and so on. We have some of the highest per capita emissions in the world,” I add.
She looks at me, blankly.
I grab the cup of tea, take a deep sip, and plunder on, “And you know what? 90% of our lowland rivers are so polluted that they are officially classed ‘unbathable’. That puts us on par with China.”
“How come?” Emmanuelle asks, flabbergasted.
I sigh, “Cow shit in the rivers. Eutrophication basically causes alga to grow real fast, which then float up to the surface, block all light for river plants underneath (causing them to die and hence lack of oxygen) and then over-populate, die and as they float down to the bottom, they require oxygen to break down…causing a hypoxic environment…so, basically, nothing can live down there.
“So the plants die, so everything else dies.”
“Oh,” she falters.
“And,” I press on, “That’s not the full story. We have some of the highest rates of depression, suicide and domestic violence in the developed world. A quarter of kids live in poverty – no shoes for school, no lunches, no breakfast.”
She shakes her head.
“Yeah,” I say. “And what’s more – our prime minister used to be a banker. So he’s having a great time selling New Zealand off to the rest of the world, selling our data – not even ‘meta-data’ but, like every line of texts and emails and so on – to USA intelligence agencies, privatising everything and helping the rich get richer. All this was one of the reasons I left.”
“What?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, “Exactly.”
Most people for the most part in South America have no idea where New Zealand is. They think it’s somewhere in Europe, or maybe near Greenland. While those in Europe definitely have a better sense of its geographic location, unexamined assumptions and perceptions South America have about New Zealand could be summarized as follows: it’s beautiful, it’s clean and green, it’s where Lord of the Rings and kiwifruit and good dairy products come from, and rugby.
That’s it. There’s nothing else.
They don’t know what language we speak. They think probably everyone knows the haka, or maybe it’s a land of ‘savages,’ the kind belting it out at the world cup finals, thumping their chests and thighs. They think it’s some kind of Canada – only nicer, less Americanised and smaller. They laugh when they hear we have 4 million people and something like 30 million sheep. They are surprised to hear we have possibly the worst English accent of all of the colonised countries – that we’re like the ‘Chile’ of English.
Perhaps some of them have had friends who have visited. They’ve had short trips, the kind where you sightsee, stay in hostels and hotels, don’t interact a great deal with the locals, and don’t get a grip on the social and environmental issues the country faces. And they come back, beaming smiles on their faces, with a few USBs full of photos to show off – generally of Queenstown and Milford Sounds – and further reinforce this strange assumption that ‘New Zealand is paradise.’
When Couchsurfers started coming to my place in late 2014, they often came with these pre-conceptions. And I felt really, really awkward. Of course, I shared my favourite places with them, helped them plan full one-month or even three-month tours through the islands, told them mad stories. Of course, I told them the same thing we had been struck by when we first arrived here: people here are so nice. When we arrived, in 2002, it was a sharp contrast to the mad, dirty, competitive, over-populated India and the fast-paced British lifestyle – principals were so relaxed that they walked around In shorts, t-shirt and jandals, it was a place where skies were clear enough to see the stars at night, one could drive for miles and miles and not see a single soul; just green and green and green, there was so much less rubbish everywhere – thanks in large part to a Be a tidy Kiwi campaign – people were more conscious of environmental issues, and it seemed like the kind of place where, if one were to drop their wallet, someone walking behind might run a 100m, 200m just to give it back to you.
At least, I’d dropped, lost or left my iPhone 4 so many times in The University of Auckland and every time – no matter how public the place I’d left it in, it had either been handed back, used to ring a friend – any friend – in my contacts and thus returned to me indirectly, or found exactly where I left it, four hours earlier.
It’s a testament to the amount of trust I can have in this country that I have felt totally comfortable leaving my wallet – keys, phone, cards, cash and all – right on a café/restaurant table, wandered over the till to talk with the manager or browsed absent-mindedly through the shelves of superfoods, and returned to find it exactly where I left it, alongside my bag, umbrella and raincoat.
These things are nice, but they’re not the full story, however.
I sometimes feel very awkward about debunking myths around the cleanness and greenness of my own country – knowing, as a student of ecology and conservation, that if anyone ought to do it, it ought to be the budding, curious and furious souls of this generation – because it feels a little like pouring water all over someone’s pristine and somewhat romanticised image of the place, which they have, after all, paid a good deal of money in flight tickets and insurance and God-knows-what-else to come for and see. I keep it to conversation-level however, and shy from showing them videos such as this horrendous one on the NZ dairy industry and its atrocities – that comes later, that comes maybe after months of knowing someone – or years, in the case of my parents – and only when I feel like they are well awake already, well on the path to consciousness, and that it won’t strain our connection or detract from all the other things they adore to bits about this country. When we talk, for the most part, they listen, fascinated. Often we get the ‘Oh, yes, of course NZ has its problems but they are nowhere near as bad as other countries’ until we actually sit down and do a percentage-wise lineup on a number of social/environmental fronts.
“But,” Erica, a young dentist from Arequipa, Peru, says to me, when I dispel her romanticised version of India with some hard, cruel facts also as she makes guacamole in the Chakapata kitchen, “What’s so terrible about a country shouldn’t take away from what’s beautiful. The love, grace, beauty that exists there is perhaps even more valuable, given the corruption, inequality, poverty it’s had to tear its way through just to exist.”
It strikes me that she is utterly right, of course.
I often described coming to South America as an arms-in-the-air-had-enough-of-failing-NZ-politics-and-need-to-live-in-a-shit-hole-for-a-while-with-no-electricity-dirt-everywhere-and-poverty-and-fear-and-perhaps-tarantulas-to-really-appreciate-my-own-country. But it’s true: when friends like Carolina, co-convenor of the Bolivia Global Shapers Forum and delegate to the World Economic Forum have taken me out for a ride in their city, and spent hour after hour explaining all the political issues to me, I’ve felt enlightened, grateful, enriched, hopeful, even though we have perhaps been talking about the darkest of things – orphan children, sexual molestation, violence against women, dictators in power. Perhaps that’s because I recognise: when we speak of fear, it takes courage to speak it. Our anger is our passion for justice. Our sadness or pain comes from what we love. Two sides of the same coin.
So even seeing the pain of the place through the eyes of another is beautiful – not because of the pain, but because of the chance to, just for the briefest moments, see their humanity and feel the strength of connection and trust they have in sharing such vulnerability and shame about their world with me. It’s almost like being part of a grieving process, one that – like in sharing the secrets of shame – purifies, cleanses and heals with every telling. So instead of fearing or hating the country I’m part of, it actually gives me a lot more hope for it: that there are young people who are still breathing and seeing and feeling and moving and shaking deeply into the reality of their surroundings. Who are conscious. Who are awake. And that I have been doing the same for travellers passing through New Zealand – speaking our truth, as dirty, messy, hopeful, joyful, unabashed as it is – and in so doing, creating simple human connection which gives them hope for the country, even in the midst of the bleakest of statistics and stories.
And that, I think, makes all the difference.