“If we are going to have a future – we are going to have to fight for it” – Dayle Takitume.
This is the essence of the Get Free movement, the latest campaign from Greenpeace targeted at the government’s plans for deep sea oil drilling. Get Free paints itself in the colours of New Zealand’s historic protest movement, drawing particular strength from the Nuclear Free Protests of the 1970s – in a direct response to the government’s recent amendment removing the right to protest such drilling.
The campaign is a good one, with a disparate collection of scientists, lawyers, entertainers and sporting heroes all laying their cards on the table. These ambassadors want a New Zealand that lives up to its claims of being clean and green, not one that pays lip service to our natural beauty while pursuing destructive and outdated business models. Theirs are voices that refuse to be silenced, and our government would do well to listen.
The removal of the right to protest this drilling is a perfect example of the failings of democracy in the modern age. The primacy of the dollar and the sway of big business has now reached a point where governments are willing to enter back room deals that remove our fundamental right to have our voice heard – but as Lucy Lawless notes: “that right is not theirs to take.” The Get Free Movement aims to empower citizens to make their voices heard, to show the government that we will not sit idly while our country and planet is sullied. However words are malleable things and ‘freedom’ is no exception. What exactly does it mean, to “Get Free”?
Our current understanding of freedom is one that is culturally defined – framed against a dominant history that sets humanity apart from nature. In this form we are free to act as we please, with no regard for the environment. Rampant individualism and the deification of money have produced a society where we are encouraged to use our freedom to get ahead, to take any financial advantage, to exercise our freedom to benefit from the world around us. Mr Key might argue, in line with Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration, that it is our “right” to exploit our natural resources, that it is an exercise of the very freedom that makes our society so great. But he would be wrong.
Freedom in this form has enshrined a false reality: one where the limits of natural systems and our dependence on them are ignored – producing the current environmental crisis facing our world. In encouraging citizens to “Get Free” Greenpeace isn’t advocating the selfish behaviour traditionally associated with individualism. Instead they’re promoting (even if not explicitly) a new basis for our society: one where we exercise our freedom in a normative context. We act, not for our own short term benefit, but for the greater good of all life, present and future. This is the promise of ecological sustainability: freedom within natural limits and an awareness of the interconnections that bind us all.
Ours is a freedom counterbalanced with duty: a duty to protect that which provides for us, so that it might continue to do so. And it is this duty that impels us to speak up when governments refuse to acknowledge scientific realities, when they abrogate their duty to the people to further their own self-interest, all the while claiming to look out for us all. This is the duty invoked by Henry David Thoreau in his classic essay on civil disobedience, where he challenges those of solid conscience to stand up for their values, even where this conflicts with law.
Deep sea drilling and the decision whether to allow it might be a political issue, but the right to protest it isn’t. Its removal makes criminals out of those who act in the best interests of society, and illustrates the unsettling presence of crony capitalism in our own backyard. It isn’t a decision I make lightly, but if the time comes to protest deep-sea drilling at sea and I can, then I will protest. I will stand with those other individuals brave enough to risk arrest in the name of democracy and the interests of our planet. I will stand proudly, secure in the value of my position, emboldened by all those who have stood before me. Theirs is a legacy we will not give up lightly.
In a discussion on TV3 current affairs show ‘The Nation’, the presenter was unable to see how Greenpeace’s push for a green economy relates to the Nuclear Free Protests. Perhaps it was the adversarial nature of the debate, or the constraints of time – but to me the link is obvious.
The Greenpeace website states that “securing and maintaining the integrity of our clean and pure lands and waters for the long term should be a core responsibility of any government.” This ties in with the growing environmental rights revolution and the use of ecological integrity in Canadian forestry management as a measure of environmental resilience. Our law doesn’t yet provide for this governmental responsibility, but that isn’t to say that it can’t, or shouldn’t – international developments suggest a shift towards a model of law that reflects the primacy of natural systems, complete with responsibilities on the part of both government and citizens (more to come on this soon).
What is to be done when this responsibility is abrogated, or not even acknowledged? When our leaders refuse to lead in any true sense of the word? When the only avenue for officially manifesting the will of the people is called an “utter waste of money”? In absence of government leadership the burden falls to the people. How will we manifest this?
Just like the Nuclear Free Movement, the lobbying against deep sea drilling is about New Zealanders having a say – our voices being heard. Deep sea drilling represents an allegiance to an outdated model of thinking, with our government’s efforts to encourage exploration a sad example of the myopic adherence to economic bottom-lines that has brought us into the current crisis. What we need isn’t further rhetoric, pledging to do our bit while acting to the contrary – but new business models, with a focus on sustainable energy and the technology that underlies it. This is a positive reply to those who would deny the environmentally conscious any economic acumen, and proof that we can still produce a flourishing economy without the short sighted destruction of our planet.
New Zealand is a small but proud country, and the Nuclear Free Movement represented a turning point in our sense of nationhood. In standing up to the superpowers of the world we showed that we weren’t willing to compromise the values important in our society. We showed that we had a cultural identity independent of our trading partners and were unwilling to let these relations take precedence over it. In sacrificing our military alliance with the United States we showed we weren’t willing to be bullied and we became stronger for it. Where has that will gone today?
Deep-sea drilling and the wider thrust of the Get Free Movement poses the same questions as nuclear testing did. Its rejection represents a step away from the status quo and the outdated thinking it represents. This isn’t just a rejection based on fears of a spill and the immediate damage it might cause. In saying no to deep sea drilling New Zealanders are acknowledging our dependence on the earth, the imminence and magnitude of climate change, and a willingness to build a flourishing society that doesn’t cost the earth.
The association with Nuclear Free Protesting should be clear. We’ve led the world before and it became a source of national pride: an embodiment of that which we cherish. As the threat of climate change becomes more and more apparent we are presented with another opportunity to lead.
In his brutal critique of the global adherence to reason divorced from morality, John Ralston Saul writes that “the void in our society has been produced by the absence of values. And values are not established by asserting issues… The constant base needed to supply values is the result of methodological participation. The individual gains his powers and responsibilities by being there.”
The removal of the right to protest these decisions stymies our most basal form of participation. If Saul is correct in his assertion that “our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions” then the Get Free Movement does our society a service. In refusing to accept a reality where we are barred from asking questions, Greenpeace challenges the notion of economic growth in and of itself. This pushes us to envision another society, one where we might live in harmony with natural systems – leaving us with a question: what will we do with our freedom?
Want to learn more? You can check out the full site here.