I suspect that most readers of websites that consider climate change, and therapists like myself exercised about its implications, sympathise fairly intensely with George Monbiot’s take on the devastation wrought by agriculture and livestock on the UK’s environment and our “sheepwrecked” uplands.
I thought a lot about George’s passion on the issue of sheep and cattle as my wife Jutta and I pedalled south through New Zealand in February and March 2016 on a six-week fund-raising tandem journey.
We rode from the very top of the North Island to the very bottom of the South, passing through landscape unutterably and soul-crushingly changed by European settlement in less than 100 years – just a blink of an evolutionary eye.
As people irritatingly say when they’re about to voice something critical, don’t get me wrong.
Jutta and I love New Zealand, where our daughter now lives, and have been stunned by the majesty and beauty of its landscapes as we have travelled approaching 3000 kilometres south on our tandem Daisy2.
The Kiwis, Maoris and Pakeha alike, as the Europeans are known here, are among the most generous, spontaneous, kind, open-heated folk we have ever met on our travels.
But before one becomes habituated, as of course happens, it takes the breath away to discover how ruthlessly and completely – and, in fairness unconscious to what they were doing – the early European settlers burned and felled almost all of this country’s native forests
Over less than a hundred years from the middle of the 19th century, millions of hectares were completely cleared of native “bush”, and millions upon millions of trees felled, including 100s of thousands of majestic Kauri trees with trunks sometimes thicker than a tube train and often thousands of years old.
Of course, it was no different really from what humans did to the forests in Europe, and in North America, hundreds of years earlier, only here within a much more compressed time frame, and on an intense, industrial scale.
It was a kind of unconscious laboratory experiment in how quickly humans could subjugate an entire ecosystem to their agricultural needs.
The slaughter – the ecocide – was so intense that we learned there would at times be upward of 100 sailing ships at anchor in Kaipara Harbour north-west of Auckland, where I began writing these lines, waiting to load up with Kauri timber and gum.
The wood and associated products would be used for ship- and house-building (tall, straight Rimu trees made perfect sailing masts, and much of San Francisco was built with Kiwi Kauri), for the making of linoleum and varnish – in short for consumption in the moment.
As we travelled – this article being completed in Wanaka close to the end of our trip on the South Island – we were struck by the fabulous quality of the timber in the most modest of Kiwi homes and hostels, wood which, if available at all for purchase, now costs a fortune.
Of course, a hundred years ago, it was simply what was there and what was used – for building, fences, burning, clearing… And so much of it is just gone, in a puff of smoke.
In the late 19th century, fires would be set routinely to clear what the settlers called, and Kiwis still call, bush, justified by the mindset of often religious immigrants from Scotland who on the one hand came with their own expectations of cattle- and crop-based subsistence, and who on the other took literally the Bible’s positioning of man as in dominion over all of Nature.
To those early settlers, we’ve learned that one blade of grass – which cattle and sheep could eat – was explicitly seen as worth two inedible Kauri trees.
So low was the price for timber and so abundant the supply – echoes of the orgies of cod fishing in the North-East Atlantic at roughly the same time – that the price earned by the loggers for their wood would sometimes barely cover even the cost of its extraction.
Felling of Kauris and of other native rainforest trees in New Zealand continued, amazingly, right into the 1960s.
And while earnest efforts are now being made to restore some native forest and preserve the tiny postage stamp-sized areas left of what was originally here, almost every magnificent, archetypal New Zealand vista spoke as we pedalled through it of heartbreak.
At times, we both felt the grief and loss of this abused landscape almost physically.
The South Island is somewhat less devastated, as least in the North and on the West Coast, but as we pedalled through, New Zealand’s North Island looked, felt and smelt for the most part like a farmyard.
I exaggerate only a little to say that almost every time we looked up from our concentrated gaze on the road surface beneath our hard-pedalling feet, we would see presented the same endless stripped, treeless, grassy hills with what must be the largest herds and flocks of sheep and cows on the planet, with all their attendant appetite and effluent.
One would not want to – and we did not – draw water from most of the streams of the North Island.
And before anyone over-idealises the Maoris, who first arrived here only a moment really ahead of us Europeans in the 12th and 13th centuries in canoes from the Cook Islands, homo sapiens sapiens in almost all his/er tribal manifestations has a pretty solid record of slashing, burning and exploiting wherever we go.
We understand that some half the forests of Aotearoa, and many of the native flightless birds here like the huge Moa and of course the Kiwi, had been consumed, burned or cooked well before Europeans turned up and so thoroughly finished the job from the 1830s or so onwards.
What, however, most struck us both as we tandemed slowly south (we are after all both therapists), is the psychology of it all, and how unconscious the process of ecocide was to those who perpetrated it.
More than anywhere I’ve been, New Zealand illustrates to me humanity’s general and continued lack of conscious awareness of the price the environment has paid and is paying for the rolling pastoral landscapes to which we’ve become habituated.
George Monbiot (and despite what I view as my own realistic pessimism, all power to his elbow in changing attitudes to farming and our British uplands) calls it Shifting Baseline Syndrome, where we judge change only against what we personally used to know, so that what went before disappears from current awareness altogether.
The Aotearoa story – the perceived beauty of its ravaged landscapes, and indeed the ease with which so many of us now travel here to live or to holiday – illustrate how right he is.
And, since you ask, or should by now be wondering, what on earth are therapists as deeply bothered as we two are about climate change doing flying half way round the world to cycle from one end of these islands to the other – and how can we justify the CO2 emissions it takes to fly two people, their heavy touring tandem and 30kg of luggage that kind of distance.
On the one hand, just personally and no justifiable excuse in itself, we’re both already 65, and who knows how many more years we’ll be able comfortably (well, reasonably so given the hardness of saddles and the steepness of NZ hills) to tandem so many kilometres in less than six weeks, at our best up to 136 km in one day.
On the other, and actually more importantly, nothing I have experienced or witnessed since I wrote a cover article for Therapy Today in late 2007 has altered my personal conviction, sadly, that as a “civilisation” (a questionable definition) we as humans living the lifestyle Westerners currently enjoy have no chance of surviving the 21st century.
With Jutta and as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe and China, I have lived and travelled over the years across most of this planet, initially without the slightest awareness of the environmental consequences of so doing, and only in the last 15 years or so with a gathering sense of impending doom.
And, even without going into denialism and US Republicans, coal use in China, dramatically receding glaciers here in NZ as across the globe and the rest, let’s be even more honest.
Living the daily life that we do, whether or not we add to our CO2 footprint with our holiday or business travel, I cannot see how our individual decisions and choices will now make the blindest bit of difference to how the planet is already heating, the consequences of which with their feedback loops and rapidly rising temperatures are already locked into the climate system.
As a therapist working with trauma and addictions and the usual gamut of dysfunctional human behaviour, I’ve concluded that we as a species are able to change not when we have the choice to do so, but when the crisis, whether personal or collective, is already so advanced that we have NO choice.
There is so much more that could be written here.
I could speculate about the great goodness and kindness that will undoubtedly manifest within and even between human groups as survival pressures mount.
Having worked for the first time over the past two years with a young client dying of cancer – his end came shortly after our departure for New Zealand, and in expectation of that I am grateful to have had the chance for each of us to say an explicit goodbye – I could certainly write about the importance of continuing our human journey with good heart, without attachment to a particular outcome, and of working towards what one might call a collective good death for humanity.
There is also much that needs to be written and understood about the violence that may well unfold, and the wars, as in Syria, that will bring out the worst and the best in human nature.
But as I see it, approaching the end of our tour of Aotearoa, humankind is nowhere near ready yet, or sufficiently emotionally aware of the urgency of our shared situation, to make – or especially to allow our governments to make – the horrendously difficult choices that would be needed to prevent what the science warns us is already gathering and unavoidable climate catastrophe.
Maybe I’m wrong. Tragically for us humans, but not of course for this planet or galaxy or indeed universe, which will continue unperturbed, I don’t think I am.