Matariki, climate and kauri with Kennedy Warne

From Nine To Noon, 11:45 am on 22 June 2015

my matariki Everything is Connected
My Matariki - Everything is Connected. Photograph by Kennedy Warne

Matariki, the season of new beginnings, began officially last Thursday. And the shortest day – the winter solstice – is today. So we are in the midst of a time for thinking about endings and beginnings, greetings and farewells, looking back and looking forward. Truly, “the old net is put away; the new net goes fishing."

There are Matariki festivities happening throughout the country, and there are things families can do to make this season meaningful as a signpost of the year. Kiwi Families suggests, among other things, holding a family feast (doubling perhaps as a midwinter Christmas dinner – or as well as!), planting a Matariki tree, sleeping under the stars (perhaps Central Otago residents may want to delay, with lows of minus 7 predicted this week), re-committing to New Year’s resolutions (this is, after all, the beginning of a “new year”) and generally using Matariki as a time to celebrate the past and plan for the future.

If you want to find Matariki (Pleiades) in the night sky, you’ll need to get up early, because the constellation rises just before dawn. And when you do find it, some ideal lines to recite are those of Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

As Matariki began, the much awaited encyclical letter of Pope Francis addressing climate change, environmental degradation, global economics and the plight of the poor was released.

Some are calling the pope the “caped climate crusader” for his ability to focus international attention on the climate issue where other world leaders and activists have not been able to gain traction. But his letter is a much more wide-ranging examination of humanity’s dismal record on caring for what he calls “our common home".

He hasn’t minced words in his 184-page missive, speaking out forcefully on the evils of consumptive capitalism, the deification of the free market, an obsession with technology and the tyranny of anthropocentrism “our unrestrained delusions of grandeur".

He calls instead for an “integral ecology – renewing a sense of stewardship for earth, rather than considering it a repository of extractable resources.

The pope’s letter comes on top of some other surprising climate statements from unlikely sources. A couple of weeks ago the G7 summit of leading industrialised nations called for decarbonising of the global economy by the end of the century, essentially saying that the fossil fuel era is over. And almost at the same time executives of six European oil companies called for a carbon tax.

I wrote about these events, and wondered if we could be seeing the beginnings of a “climate swerve” – a change in public consciousness that sees opinions solidifying to such a degree that political action is no longer avoidable.

The US historian who coined the term “climate swerve” notes that a crucial ingredient in getting galvanised public awareness is the inclusion of ethics in the discussion. In a sense, then, the pope’s highly ethics-based appeal brings a new element into what has largely been an environmental case against the rising rates of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ethics brings me to my last topic for discussion: the mining of swamp kauri in Northland. Last week Radio NZ broke a story alleging dodgy goings on in Northland regarding the extraction and export of swamp kauri stumps and logs. The Forestry Act 1949 prohibits the export of indigenous timber such as kauri unless it is in the form of a finished or manufactured product, or where the source is the stump or roots of a of a tree from a registered sustainable forest or where the stump or roots have been salvaged from an area that is not indigenous forest land.

The past decade has seen something of a goldrush in swamp kauri extraction, and the suspicion is that the environmental impacts have not been fully appreciated, and that perhaps there has been some creative circumventing of the letter of the law.

What hasn’t been discussed is the question of the ethics of extracting this non-renewable resource. For general guidance, the Resource Management Act states that resources must be sustained so as “to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations.” Minerals are exempted from this requirement, though no reasons are given. Increasingly, ethicists and philosophers are asking, “What are our obligations to future generations?” Clearly, this is a vital question when considering what actions to take on climate change. Yet politicians are largely silent on the matter, and one wonders to what extent extraction of mineral and non-mineral resources such as swamp kauri should be examined from a future-generations standpoint.

It does seem incongruous that at a time when a disease is threatening the health and perhaps existence of what remains of the vast kauri forests of pre-colonial times, and when a tree-sitter succeeds in getting a residential development involving logging of a kauri tree shelved, that ancient kauri in the wetlands and farm paddocks of Northland should be the subject of an unholy rush to flog off the timber off overseas with a minimum of added value.