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Russel Norman’s ANZMAC Conference Keynote speech

Victoria University, Wellington

Tēnā koutou

I give greetings to the mana whenua of this place Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama, Ngati Mutanga – and I greet the many iwi and hapū who have links to this whenua.

I give greetings to the Wellington region Te Upoko o te Ika – the head of the fish. The rest of the fish being the North Island or Te Ika a Māui, or the fish of Māui. 

I give greetings to Te Whanganui-a-Tara or the great harbour of Tara.

I would like to acknowledge the hundred or so activists who have spent the last 24 hours out in the rain and sun blockading the New Plymouth offices of giant Austrian oil company OMV which is looking for new oil in New Zealand waters to make climate change worse. 

Thank you to the Australia and New Zealand Marketing Academy for the invitation to speak today.

I would like to acknowledge the climate leadership of Victoria University and its Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford.

For the sake of clarity my comments today are of a personal nature and I’m not speaking on behalf of Greenpeace.

Introduction

We stand in this place at the junction of two tectonic plates, as the Pacific plate rides up over the Australian plate, which is just 20 kilometres below us. As the two plates slide over one another it is a bit of a bumpy ride. If you are lucky you might get a good jolt while you’re here – a 4 on the richter scale – and if you are unlucky you won’t get anything or you’ll get something rather larger. 

The airport where many of you landed only came up out of the water 500 years ago in a rather large earthquake and the roads around the harbour are built on land that only emerged in the 1855 earthquake.

It is a reminder that while we humans are having a huge impact on planet earth we are still very much part of this world and not separate from it.

Biodiversity and climate crisis

But what of the huge impact that humans are having on planet earth.

Just 4% of the biomass of mammals left on planet earth are wild animals. Just 4%.

Whereas 36% of mammalian biomass left on Earth are humans.

And astonishingly 60% of all the biomass of mammals left are livestock to feed humans, mostly cattle and pigs.

This is the era of the Anthropocene. The geological period in which one species, us, is profoundly dominant on this blue planet of ours. The Anthropocene is when humans have dramatically altered the course of life on earth.

And 70% of all the biomass of birds on the planet are poultry – for us to eat – and only 30% is from wild birds.

This is the era of the sixth great extinction event and the first one that is due to the actions of one of the species on this planet. 

Now to be fair, this extinction event is so far nothing like the greatest of extinction events, the permian triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago. Known as the Great Dying during the PT extinction event up to 96% of all marine species went extinct and 70% of all vertebrates.

Nonetheless, it is a significant and accelerating extinction event and it has only really recently got underway – we have increased the rate of species extinction to a rate of 100 to 1000 the background rate. Interestingly insects are disappearing at a rapid rate as their populations collapse over the space of a few decades – in fact in some places we are driving insects to the wall in a way that is not dissimilar to the Permian Triassic extinction event where 80% of all insect genera disappeared.

But wait there’s more – there isn’t just the dramatic loss of biodiversity – no modern day snuff speech is complete without that other great horseman of the apocalypse, climate change. Of course the Earth’s been hotter before but the rate of change caused by us is dramatic.

The last weeks there has been a permanent haze over Auckland where I live from the bushfires in Australia – fires made worse by climate change. Breathing in particles of burnt koala sure does remind you that we all share one planet and that planet is in a state of climate flux. And of course we have hardly begun – the global heating we have experienced so far is lagging greenhouse emissions which continue to rise to new records every year, locking in future climate change.

But that’s enough of that.

Biodiversity collapse and climate crisis. These are real things and they are big problems.

Solutions

So what are we gonna do about it.

Well all the solutions are within our reach, we have the technology, we have the resources to solve these problems. Renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, electric vehicles and more – the technology we need is not even especially novel anymore. There is ample money – to stop financial collapse in 2008 we created billions of dollars in cash – and surely we can do that to give our kids a better world.

But so far we have struggled to adopt these solutions. Emissions of climate pollution are still rising rapidly and destruction of the biosphere continues apace.

Vested Interests

There are good reasons why we are struggling to save ourselves.

In order to solve the climate and biodiversity crisis we have to confront some of the most powerful vested interests on the planet, like coal and oil companies. We literally have to end the business model of fossil fuel companies. They face an existential crisis – if our civilisation is to survive, fossil fuel companies must die, so understandably they are fighting it every step of the way and, as some of the richest companies that have ever existed, they are well placed to resist. 

And beyond these specific vested interests, like fossil fuel companies, we need to make significant changes right across our economy if we are to decarbonise it. And these changes will face resistance from those who have to change even if the change won’t destroy them, and those who will win out of the low carbon economy are still small in comparison to those who benefit from the status quo. So it was never going to be easy. 

Nonetheless we are still failing pretty dramatically given the seriousness of the problem.

And while opposition by vested interests is really at the heart of what it stopping us dealing with climate change and biodiversity collapse, there is more to it than that. 

After all, what is stopping us collectively overcoming this blatant self-regarding minority, such as the fossil fuel industry, who are opposed to action on climate and biodiversity?

Ideas

And here I want to talk about some of the ideas that our civilisation has embraced that are making it harder for us to save our own necks, and our kids.

If we are to survive the era named after us, if our civilisation is to have a future, if the Anthropocene is to make it into the 22nd century and beyond, then we need to look at the ideas we propagate which are not adaptive. 

Our genes are not going to evolve fast enough to allow humans to survive our own epoch.

Rather our ideas must evolve – we need to embrace ideas that allow us to adapt to the world as we collectively have made it, and we desperately need to jettison some maladaptive ideas that are locking us into a climate and biodiversity disaster.

And today I want to talk about a few of those ideas.

Ideas matter.

Ideas change the world. Ideas don’t live in grand isolation from the material world, far from it. As a famous philosopher once wrote, people make history but not on their own terms. The economics of the human world and the laws of physics of the natural world have enormous influence on the world of ideas.

But nonetheless ideas do change the world.

And what is the world of marketing but the making and selling of ideas.

What are the dreams that are propagated by a million tweets, what are the ideas that are reinforced by a billion paid facebook posts. 

I want to look at some ideas that sit behind the torrent of discourse that floods our lives everyday. 

I want to look at the world of ideas from a judgemental perspective. I want to look at ideas that will help us adapt to the world that we’ve made, good ideas, and ideas are maladaptive to this world, bad ideas.

Separate from nature

Let’s start with the idea that humans are separate from nature. Whether we like it or not humans are part of nature. Our lives and futures are intimately connected with all the other living things on planet earth. Our destiny and theirs is linked.

It is not just that we all share common ancestors – I literally share a family tree with that tree just as you are literally related to a dolphin. It’s more than that they are our family. 

The destruction of the rainforests of the world is releasing carbon that will destroy the relatively stable climate on which our civilisation is built. 

When we kill the soil by dumping tonnes of synthetic nitrogen on it we ultimately kill its ability to feed us.

And the climate system has proven our immutable connections to the rest of the world. Yes humans have shown their uniqueness in our ability to change the climate system of the planet, but our dependence on that very climate system has demonstrated how unspecial we are. 

We cannot escape our connections. With all its wealth and technology, Australians still live in fear of bushfires that have been made worse by climate change. Made worse by that lump of coal that Australian PM Scott Morrison told us not to fear – and yet Australians do live in fear of its effects.

There are many societies over time who have had a world view that sees themselves as part of nature. We catch glimpses of this different world view in indigenous cultures who have survived for thousands of years in the same environment. Australian Aborigines survived on that continent for at least 600 centuries. As the colonists attempted to exterminate Aborigines by shooting them or giving them flour poisoned with cyanide we caught glimpses of a way of living that was different to the dominant global order. A society which understood that they were a part of the natural order, not its master. 

Many of these societies continue to exist today showing us a different way of thinking is possible.

But in the dominant global culture this is not the dominant view. When Genesis said that we should subdue the earth, have dominion over the fish and birds and every living thing we took it to heart.  At the heart of our global culture is the completely maladaptive idea that we are separate from nature – that we can poison the world with insecticides, fill the aquifers with fertilizer runoff and fracking fluid, and yet live happily ever after.

Maybe when there was a handful of us sharing the planet we could dump our rubbish at sea but not when there are seven billion of us. The plastics flowing into the ocean absorb the toxic chemicals we dump there, they get ground up into microplastics, the microplastics get eaten by the plankton, the plankton get eaten by the krill, the krill get eaten by the fish, and the fish get eaten by us. We eat our own toxic plastic waste that we thought we had put outside.

Our technology, our wealth cannot sever the ties that bind us to the rest of life. There is no outside.

We are part of nature, our economy must exist within the limits of the natural world. No amount of endless worship of GDP can escape this profoundly important reality.

If we are to make our way through this troubled century, the journey that we have embarked upon with no way to turn back, we will need to learn that we do have our special place but that place is to sit alongside the rainforest not to be its dominator. 

We need to learn that we are part of the living world not separate from it.

And until our species relearns this basic truth, we will continue to eat our own toxic waste.

And the challenge to those who live in the world of marketing, is how do we make sure that the memes we spin, the stories we tell, reinforce the idea that we are part of living nature not separate from it.

People power 

I want to talk about another maladaptive idea for the era of the Anthropocene. And that is the idea that people are powerless. It is the idea that people can’t make the world a better place. 

This idea is profoundly maladaptive because it says that we are stuck with the status quo, and one thing we know for certain is that business as usual is leading us to a cliff. 

This idea, that people are powerless to change the world for the better, means that the systems that have led us into the sixth great extinction event, the powers that be that have led us into a climate emergency, that they cannot be changed by forces outside these systems.

If this is true then we are doomed – a kind of institutional inertia, a kind of catastrophic predetermination.

The idea that people are powerless to change history is a pervasive idea in our society. 

However, the course of human history speaks to us differently. People before us have successfully changed history by acting together. People power isn’t just a handy slogan it is a true force in history. The most cursory examination of history tells us that many of the things we value today came as a result of the collective efforts of our forebears. 

I think of a few examples from my own life. 

The world’s biggest sand island, Fraser Island off the Queensland coast, was destined to be destroyed for sand mining. But we marched and we we organised and we lobbied and eventually we won. 

We fought to get rid of Joh Bjelke Peterson against massive odds and won. Queensland in my youth was a quasi dictatorship – street marches were banned, giant files were kept on dissidents, the government had a gerrymander so they only needed a third of the votes to win a majority in the Queensland Parliament. But people organised collectively and eventually we got rid of him.

Gay law reform same story. 

In New Zealand people protested against nuclear weapons. There was civil disobedience mass street protests and eventually a Nuclear free New Zealand. 

And of course those who came before us won annual leave, sick days, the forty hour week, better pay, working class men’s right to vote, women’s right to vote, Treaty of Waitangi settlements, apartheid was overthrown.

Every one of these victories came through mass organised people power. Every one was vociferously opposed by various forces of the status quo. Every one of these progressive steps forward was highly divisive and polarising but eventually people power won out.

I could go on and on.

The point is that people working together have been the driver of pretty much every important progressive change that has ever happened, and incidentally many of these movements used non violent civil disobedience as a key tactic. 

I think about the decision last year by the New Zealand Government to stop issuing new offshore oil and gas exploration permits. This was something that Greenpeace New Zealand had been campaigning on for about seven years. People organised marches, there were protests on beaches, Iwi Chairs Forum came out supporting a ban, people swam in front of seismic testing vessels 150 kilometres offshore (which was a new experience for me). 

Even today as we speak Greenpeace activists and others are blockading a giant oil company’s office in New Plymouth which is using a pre existing exploration permit.

Elvis Teddy, the captain of a little fishing boat owned by Te Whānau a Apanui, an iwi on the remote east coast of New Zealand, parked his boat in front of seismic blasting vessel working for a giant oil company Petrobras. Elvis told them on the radio that he was just doing a bit of fishing. He had his Iwi behind him and Greenpeace was there supporting them. 

The NZ navy boarded his boat and arrested him. Elvis and his whanau spoke of their disgust that after all the sacrifices made by Te Whānau a Apanui soldiers in war, the navy didn’t defend Te Whānau a Apanui against Petrobras in their own ancestral waters. 

But it is Elvis Teddy that had the last laugh. Petrobras is gone and no new oil exploration permits are being issued. And soon enough we will see off OMV also.

If we are in the business of ideas, if we are propagating stories, we need to tell these stories. We need to be telling people the history of how change really happens. Yes, in some ways it is a bit of a grim time on the climate front but the truth is that people have bent the stick of history before. 

We need to tell people that they have power, that people just like them have changed history for the better, in fact nothing else ever really has.

If the Anthropocene truly is the geological era of the humans, then let us empower the humans, and let us promote the truly adaptive idea the we humans collectively can make our own history anew, that the past is not our prison.

Global identity

I want to consider one more idea that is really essential for humans in the era of the Anthropocene, which is the idea of global identity.

The problems of the climate and biodiversity crisis can really only be understood globally. Our local weather blows hot and cold and it sometimes seems hard to discern a pattern. Our little bit of ocean destruction as we bottom trawl for fish destroying the corals on the ocean floor doesn’t seem such a big deal when you think about how big the oceans really are. 

But when you put it all together globally you can see that humans, the 36% of mammalian biomass left on earth, really are collectively having a huge impact.

The air filled with carbon dioxide from burning coal mined in Australia, and burnt in Australia, China or India, that air knows no national boundaries. It is happy to heat the planet globally. Climate change is no nationalist. Your breath out is my breath in, my breath out is your breath in, wherever you and I live on this blue planet.

And just as importantly the solutions are global. We all have to figuratively hold hands and collectively act as global citizens to cut our emissions and protect the remaining biodiversity.

And yet right at the moment when our global connections have never been plainer, more profound, and more essential to our survival, we see the rise of nationalism. 

The buffoon in the White House is just one representative of a broader idea that is profoundly maladaptive in the era of the Anthropocene. The idea that we can take a purely arbitrary national approach to climate change is patently maladaptive. As I said, climate change is no nationalist.

I often think it would be really helpful if vaguely threatening and powerful aliens would turn up in orbit around Planet Earth. The sense of global identity generated, when faced with a hostile alien Other, is the kind of global identity we need to deal with the climate and ecological emergency we face.

But in the absence of that, I think of the Pale Blue Dot photograph. On valentines day 1990 when the Voyager 1 spacecraft was six billion kilometres from Earth it’s camera was turned back to take one final series of photographs of earth. It was act of love inspired by astronomer Carl Sagan. It showed a tiny blue dot, less than a pixel, floating in the vast black empty immensity of space. 

We share a tiny island of astonishing life floating in a black emptiness of space and we need to think like Earthlings. And the question Earthlings would ask is how we can make that planet great again.

We need to promote and celebrate global identity. Yes we all have particular places that mean something special to us. Yes we all have particular communities that give us meaning. Indigenous people have long standing connections to particular places and communities. 

But to deal with the long climate emergency, we need to value our local connections but especially value our global connections. National identity was a creation, an ‘imagined community’ as Benedict Anderson called it. Now we need to create and nurture a global identity. There is one big global human family and that family is in danger.

Conclusion

So to wrap up. 

The Anthropocene demands that we change some of our old ideas if we are to successfully avoid some of the worst of the climate and biodiversity catastrophe.

Ideas are important.

The primary responsibility for our predicament lies with powerful vested interests, such as fossil fuel companies and their paid political representatives, who have fought every effort to move beyond the fossil fuel era. 

However, if we are to see through their lies and non-sense, if we are to help others to see through them, then we need to challenge some key maladaptive ideas. 

The idea that somehow we are separate from the rest of living nature is maladaptive and wrong. It justifies turning our back on the destruction of the rest of the living world. It justifies destroying our life support system to increase GDP.

The idea that people can’t collectively change the world for the better is maladaptive and wrong. It makes it more difficult for people to come together to lead the change we need if our kids are to have a fighting chance. 

The idea that we should focus on our own nation’s self interest ahead of global interests is maladaptive and wrong. The problems and the solutions are global and they require us to think and act as global citizens holding hands across national borders as if an alien threat was orbiting our blue planet.

We are part of nature.

People acting together have real power.

We are all global citizens.

There are no doubt other critical ideas beyond these three. The point is that those of us engaged in the business of ideas need to take our responsibilities seriously and think about which ideas we help propagate and spread and which ones we don’t.

The future of our world is at stake.