Opinion: The election hoardings are up, the game is on, promises are being made. The main parties are road-building. Winston Peters has a cunning plan: as the nation’s handbrake and culture warrior, his new hill to die on will be the ladies’ loo.
In mangrovian Auckland where I grew up, locals voice their customary demand: tax relief. Tax cuts stimulate their economy, they argue, and the money saved goes on bare essentials including, most obviously, holidays in Māui. Now Māui has gone up in flames, thoughts will turn. If other islands are boring and Oʻahu is ratcheting up prices, will folk flirt with radicalism? Perhaps they should pay no taxes at all?
When I was young, my best friend’s father belonged to the Values Party. Every time this dreadlocked old bore tried to lecture me about the environment, I told him crisply that I did not care. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which I would care in later years. These days I’m scandalised by our lack of progress.
I lived in central London in the 90s. It was hellish back then because of cars. Now, since the introduction of the congestion-charging scheme, many areas of that huge city are nicer and quieter to live in than Auckland. Children can ride bikes safely on the footpaths, cars are restricted and public transport is the preferred mode. We can opt to make our city liveable, or like Los Angeles, where there’s no public investment, the car rules and the ethos is “be rich or go to hell”. It means everyone lives in hell; the only social distinction is your ability to wall yourself off.
Down among the mangroves, there’s a view of storm-ravaged cliffs and condemned houses. I walk there with the dog thinking about my late mother. I used to see her at the bay, a tiny figure making her way along the shore. She cared about social justice and the planet. If she ran into our radical local MP, little David Seymour (“that ridiculous youth”), she’d give him a good telling-off. Recently, at her house, I found a book of photos of my old favourite band, the Clash. There was a reference to Americans’ love of huge cars and a quote from musician Joe Strummer: “Will big shots feel virile in Hondas?”
Virility in the suburbs: the giant SUVs, the power tools. When I was a child, our neighbour used to menace his wife by chopping down trees in the garden. Last week a family friend, a landscaper who has turned my lawn into a garden, said while revving up, “What’s a lesbian without a chainsaw?”
Later she stood pouring freezing water from the hose over her head. She was so amped and virile, I hardly dared break it to her: her favourite tool had to go.
The leaf blower. Who knew? Obviously the most aggressive and Freudian of garden tools, well known, like virility, for shattering the peace wherever it goes, the leaf blower is murder on the environment.
Studies have shown that a petrol-powered leaf blower emits more pollution than a 2.8-tonne truck. Hydrocarbon emissions from half an hour with a two-stroke leaf blower are the same as a 6000km cross-country drive in the same vehicle.
If politicians are all too slow, what can we do to stave off existential terrors?
Ditch the SUV. Eat less meat. We can stop felling trees and give up mowing lawns and berms. In London, they’re letting the grass grow long and planting wildflowers in the parks. And we can lay down our petrol-powered leaf blowers. Big shots will have to feel virile with electric.