The other day I watched a man walk onto the bus, put down his laptop and blazer, and sneeze a streak of snot on his arm. He looked at it. Made a decision. And wiped his arm on the seat.
Of all the bad things happening in the world, my immediate worry is COVID-19. Partly because we don’t understand it properly—especially long COVID, and the cumulative damage caused even by mild infections—but also because I keep getting it. Five times! This is a loopy bit of anecdata; it says nothing about my inclination to follow rules or avoid risk. I’ve been wearing an N95—a good snug one, with a Darth Vader filter—in crowded indoor spaces, and some outdoor ones, since the pandemic began. (It’s not the kids bringing it home, either: four of those times, I’ve been the only person in the house to get hit.)
You might be more worried about the cost of living. Flood cleanup. Our broken housing market, the recession, ram raids. Cooked coral. Melting ice. Canada on fire. Maui on fire. Whichever place catches fire next. But zoom out and we are all worrying about the same thing.
“A delusion of separation”, a colleague called it today: the idea that all of these things are just happening, that they have nothing to do with environmental policy, and that surface-level tweaks like removing GST or fixing potholes will make any difference at all to the terrifying downhill slide.
We try to publish stories that have different trajectories. But time after time, all paths lead to loss—we’re either documenting the imminent prospect of loss, or the throes of it, or the ghosts left behind. Even in a story about people righting wrongs, like killing all the rats on a tiny Tongan island, that bigger, scarier narrative hangs over everything.
Our stories are also stories of entanglement. Of repercussions, ripple effects. Wipe burrowing seabirds out of your forests—change the chemistry of the country—and the trees “run out of juice”. Send sediment down the rivers and the sea turns to soup, teeming with a parasite that’s killing endangered dolphins. Ratchet up the heat and watch new, ravenous caterpillars munch through your vege gardens. This is a catalogue of our screw-ups. But it’s also a lesson: the way we use our environment matters. The way we eat, and get from A to B, and orient ourselves around other species—it all matters. And we can change it.
But right now, instead of making any real change, we’re barely coping with each symptom, each shock. Two weeks ago Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told Toby Manhire on the Gone by Lunchtime podcast that he felt his government had only really achieved one term’s worth of work, because COVID had been such a time suck. That’s going to keep happening. And it’s going to get worse. (Watch what happens to the cost of living if we blow past two degrees of warming.)
We urgently need to focus on the causes. We can’t continue to be blinded by the flurry of effects. Yet in this election campaign, meaningful environmental policy is being treated as frivolous. Something separate and out of reach. Again.
My vote goes to whoever shows me that they understand. That they see the stories we’re telling here—there’s only one story, really— and that they’re ready, finally, to rewrite it. So far it’s a pretty short list.