Unchained Melody: The weight of the warming world


By Melody Thomas

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If life has got you feeling anxious, you’re far from alone.

The other night I made the mistake of watching the news, and in the space of 20 minutes saw devastating footage from Cyclone Gabrielle, snow falling in Hollywood, whole Ukrainian cities levelled by Russian bombs, and an updated death toll of more than 50,000 from the earthquake in Turkey.

It feels like end times, and while my friends and I might joke about upskilling for the inevitable apocalypse, (I was hoping my knitting abilities would appeal to those seeking post-apocalypse tribe members, this being one of my only practical skills and with podcasting presumably no longer a thing, but someone recently pointed out to me that whatever happens, we will probably still have clothes. Back to the drawing board), it’s really not that funny. I at least was given a couple of decades of relative emotional and psychological security, which is more than can be said for Gen Z. But that time feels so distant now. When I was young, the future was a bright, shiny object I stretched my fingers towards. Now, the future burns, and I try not to look directly at it, for fear of being struck blind and helpless.

Up until recently, I’d managed to fool myself that Aotearoa was one of the best places you could hope to live out a global societal collapse. Other people thought that too: we actually won that exact title in this 2021 study, due to the fact that our ocean borders are easy to defend, we have the potential to grow enough food to feed ourselves, and to maintain an electrical grid and some manufacturing ability. Plus, it’s temperate. New Zealand temperatures don’t reach the same highs as Australia or California, and – so far at least – we’ve managed to avoid their forest fires. Nor do we have to grapple with freezing cold. Billionaires have been buying our land for their escape bunkers for years.

But the devastating floods in Auckland, described by insurers as the “biggest climate event” in New Zealand’s history, which destroyed residences and took four lives, was the first chink in this illusion… An illusion which was fully shattered less than two weeks later, when Cyclone Gabrielle hit, collapsing bridges with the force of water made more calamitous by forestry slash, pulling children and girlfriends from the arms of their loved ones and forcing terrified people to punch through their ceilings to escape the deluge, waiting on the roofs of their homes as the paddocks and orchards around them became an ocean. 

Maybe it’s still true that Aotearoa will fare better than other nations in coming years (which is in itself a horribly unempathetic metric), but better doesn’t mean fine. We are no longer unaffected. Our cities and towns are flooding. The infrastructure is not coping. People are suffering. Their livelihoods have been destroyed. Climate change is here, and we need to act now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of complacency. I understand it: you don’t win votes with radical policy, so if you want to be in a position to make change you need to do it slowly. But we don’t have time for that anymore. That ship has sailed. We either change fast, or we drown.

I used to be so proud to be from this country.  When I was 16 I lived in the USA for a year, and while I knew then (and know it even more so now) that we are far from perfect – I could see the differences in terms of how we treat each other. In terms of the blatant racism and sexism, the divide between rich and poor, and our ability to show up for each other in times of need. To find common ground and shared humanity with people we disagreed with.

But I’m not proud anymore. We are so divided. As life has gotten harder and the world around us more perilous, instead of coming together to ensure everyone is ok, we’ve opted to protect our own interests more fiercely. Any small bubble of pride I do feel, when I hear te reo spoken on the radio, when I see female and indigenous leaders giving inspiring speeches on the world stage, when we finally heard from our first out, gay All Black, is quickly pricked by the scathing comments of people emboldened by the anonymity of the internet, who would never to your face tell you to “speak English”, or deride your appearance, or dismiss your experience.

When did we get so selfish? New Zealand used to be known as a place where anybody and everybody had a ‘fair crack of the whip’: a decent chance of making something of their lives. Even if that wasn’t true for everyone, it was true for more people than it is now. How did we slide so far backwards, in our blind reach for progress?

Watching the flood and cyclone footage has been horrible. It’s the stuff of movies, but it’s happening to our own people. The recovery will take years and years, and the effects of the trauma on those affected will resonate much longer. But there’s also an opportunity here, for a wakeup call. Maybe this is how we finally manage to come together. For all the misunderstandings and vitriol shared between those living rurally and those in the city, there’s not one person who watched that footage and thought the farmers, orchardists, forestry workers or anyone else ‘had it coming’. No. We felt their pain. We cried for them. We sent what aid we could and will continue to do so. And if there was an earthquake in Pōneke or another flood in Tāmaki Makaurau, those in the country wouldn’t celebrate either. Because no matter what divides us, we still care about each other. We don’t like to see each other in pain.

And there’s power in that.

It’s hard to make changes to your life. We’re so deeply indoctrinated in the myths of the great wealth grab – that if we just work a little harder, keep our heads down, we might make our way to the upper crust, and if others don’t manage it that’s only through fault of their own – that it is really hard to act in a way that prioritises other over self. To give more taxes. To spend less, take fewer overseas holidays, work closer to where we live, get to know our neighbours, pitch in when we’re needed, and give some of what we have to those who have nothing.

But our lives are changing whether we like it or not. We can get ahead of it, or we can let it happen to us.

I would love to feel that pride in the place I was born, again. I would love for our little nation to lead the world once more. To show the rest of them what it looks like to embrace a different kind of future, where, sure, you may not ever get your flash house or boat or annual trips to Hawaii, but you will live in a community where no one lacks, where you are connected, where your natural environment is protected and nurtured so it might continue to keep everyone fed and nourished.

Where we might have a hope of not just surviving the changes that are coming, but somehow – against the odds – thriving. By building a new model that works in service of all our people, not just the wealthy minority. Where we invest now in infrastructure and policy that increases our resilience, sponging up our cities, shoring up our means of food production, so lives and livelihoods are not lost in the catastrophic weather events we know to be on the increase.

To our leaders, who have the potential to guide us into this new future, consider this permission to get radical. To propose serious change. We can handle it. We will do it for each other.

Because no matter our differences, we still care deeply.

Because as hard as we try to use keep-cups, recycle, and ride our bikes, our individual efforts can’t fix the mess we’re in.

Because, as expensive as all of this may sound, it’s nothing compared to what we’ll pay if we do nothing. Both financially and more importantly, in human lives.

I’m not prepared to sit by and watch the people of Aotearoa, he tāngata, flounder and drown.

Are you?

What I’m cooking

Bill Granger’s corn fritters, from RecipeTinEats

My aunt made these for me recently, and I demanded the recipe immediately – these are the best corn fritters I’ve tasted. Bill Granger is an Australian restaurateur and food writer, and this recipe is apparently from his popular bistro in Sydney. The reason they’re so special is that every bite is infused with the flavour of corn, rather than just the odd pop of corn when you hit a kernel, because about ¾ of the corn used is blended in a food processor first (along with a whole lot of coriander).

 If you’re looking for crispy corn fritters this isn’t the recipe for you, but if flavour is what you care about give them a go – you won’t regret it.

What I’m watching

This short video, Poker Face and Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee

If you’ve never seen it before, this short, animated video from the intercept with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in terms of the how of an alternative, sustainable future, where everyone is looked after and able to contribute. It’s a US example, but relevant.

When life is tough, we need lightness and fun to recharge. Both Poker Face and Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee will give you that hit.

Let’s be real – I’ll watch anything Natasha Lyonne is in. Russian Doll, Orange is The New Black, But I’m A Cheerleader… she can’t put a foot wrong. Poker Face features Lyonne playing that same classic character she is in everything, husky-voiced, messy-haired, dryballs, except this time she’s also a human lie detector who solves a new murder each episode. Ridiculous? Yes. Nostalgic? That too. Entertaining? Absolutely.

Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee is for lovers of Taskmaster, comedy tik toks, words and tomfoolery. It’s somehow both nerdy and idiotic, with comedians and other well known people competing to outspell each other over a bunch of increasingly ludicrous rounds. I saw this show born over the first lockdown, as a segment on Tim Batt’s equally wonderful/ludicrous Happening, an art/comedy show he broadcast from his lounge, roping in any and every person he knew for skits, chats, games and creative pursuits. Now Guy’s spelling bee is a proper show (though just barely), and it’s lost none of its original charm. It airs on TV3 at 7:30 on Thursdays, or you can stream it on Three Now.

Finally – a heads up for shows to watch out for this month – season 4 of Succession is out March 27th (who’s ready for another hit of Tom & Greg!) and Yellowjackets is out March 24, both on Neon.

What I’m reading

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

I know I’m late to the game with this book, which was joint winner of the Man Booker Prize 2019, but I’m glad I finally got to it. Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives of twelve black, British women. The women are all at different ages and stages of their lives, with different cultural and economic backgrounds, and while this is very much a book about black, British womanhood, there are so many different characters – not just the twelve women but their friends, lovers, families an enemies – that any reader will find something to relate to (and even when not directly relating, the insight into other lives is incredibly valuable). I’m not finished yet but am powering through and finding it very hard to put down in order to sleep or get work done!

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