He writes of the wood in which he played as a child, the place that gave the neighbourhood joy and belonging – like many of our own childhood experiences with woods and rivers and mountains I imagine. The Tukituki, Te Mata Peak, Waimarama and Ocean Beach, Ball’s Clearing.
And then the bulldozers came to Tom’s wood – to bring ‘progress’.
There will be those who think this is a call to go back in some time warp. It isn’t. It is about re-embracing life-giving capacities. As Tom Wessels is so good at demonstrating in this and his other books, everything changes on the surface. Stasis is a myth. Building and trees fall and regenerate; in life, everything grows and dies and is replaced. This is the inherent creativity of not just ecological but social life. But what lies beneath is what is really important; the capacities that keep this dynamic wheel called life revolving. If we do not re-embrace as the basis of governance those capacities that give life, then it isn’t governance, it is a clearance sale.
If you only measure the wheel, but have no concept of those qualitative capacities that drive it, then you will treat people and the land as resources to grind. And when you have ground them down, with them will go those social and environmental capacities upon which we depend: love, foresight, creativity, hope, trust, community-centred morality, belonging; the landscape’s capacity to mitigate flood and drought, climatic extreme, the capacities of growth and renewal.
One of the most horrifying moments when working with spreadsheet analysis that discount the future is when you realise the absolute ‘rationality’ of pillaging life as fast as you can – the insane rationality of the spreadsheet worshipper where more-money-today is the aim. It is logical to minimise the costs and maximise the returns – to go for scale, to cut the forest, clear the seas of fish, take the water, lose the soil, drain the wetland, pollute the stream – grab, take, extract, pillage, now. The uncivilised colonial and corporate agenda.
It gives you serious pause when you come to that realisation. Some technocrats realise it when they are young, some never do, some don’t care, some work for large corporations who absolutely do not care because they do not belong to a place.
But if you do care and belong to a people and a place, you cannot accept the rationalisation of that form of insanity. You go searching for moral meaning. Morality matters. You end up finding humanity and systems thinking as the rudder for decisions, not simplified numbers. You lose respect for what some refer to as the ‘thinking’ of large organisations filled with disconnecting machines and polished shoes, who blame the victims for what the shoes have done.
What Wessels and Bryson highlight are that the current values of government and large business have to change to something a whole lot wiser.
I think we need to reverse the rise of those who measure their own deluded concepts of ‘efficiency’ (usually some version of rigid box-ticking obedient ‘accountable’ hierarchy where bigger is better) and who cherish disconnection so they can live within a theory far from pulsing life (they call it ‘objectivity’, which makes me want to laugh out loud). We need to go back to the people; those who feel and belong and see beyond the spreadsheets to those qualities that give life meaning. Ask yourself who is more the ‘expert’ of any particular place out of those two types; who is more likely to be wise; who more strategic; who more visionary?
But beyond the choice of people to whom we listen, we require a shift in *purpose* to something life-affirming and cultural – to something that cherishes the capacities and potential of our land and communities. That requires a rejection of the short term maximisation of money flows irrespective of what is destroyed to achieve that end.
What we ought to do is treat people and land as the ends to sustain, and money as a means to that end rather than in any way an end in itself.
We have done the opposite over recent decades; we have put the counting of money on a pedestal and the consequent ground down people and land at its feet. And so we have accelerated the cutting down of Tom Wessel’s woods, and Bryson’s village ideal.
For all the measured dollars, this isn’t progress. It destroys the bedrock in order to build ugly castles of soon to be decaying and wind-blown straw.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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