Humanimal – Changing The World
Gary Steel finds himself in the grip of a slow-release epiphany.
CHANCES ARE, IF you’re reading this website, you care. It’s hard to escape the hippie associations of caring about the world you live in, but really, what’s the alternative? Animosity and hatred seem to be as catchy as wildfire, and many of us are so full of anger that we just want to burn the world.
My presumption is that readers of a web magazine like Doctor Feelgood really want to do their bit to make the world a better place to live in. Many of our readers have boiled down their sense of conscious living and ethics to one thing that they contend could cure many of the world’s ills. Perhaps your thing is veganism, a logical step for humanity for all sorts of reasons: health, animal welfare, and the health of the planet. Others might go for exercise and nutrition first: the idea that if you treat your body as a temple, then you’re planting a seed that may just sprout.
The sad fact is that, while most of us would love to be able to focus on the big picture, and look at a multiplicity of ways to heal the sickness inherent in a society run by the industrial consumer machine, it’s just too damn complex to do so.
My personal belief is that somehow, society needs to be rewritten from the ground up, and that we need a new system of politics that’s a genuine democracy rather than a malevolent pretend democracy that simply feeds competitive instincts and services the machine; one that’s neither left or right wing. That we need a radical new system of economics that values people first and recognises the long-term health of the environment. And so on, and blah-blah.
As singer-songwriter Roy Harper used to sing: “Free speech, one each!” No, I refuse to reduce this blog to the level of talkback radio.
My point is that each of us can only cope with so much. We’re enmeshed in the current economy, which enslaves us with long working weeks, and most of us toil away in deeply unfulfilling roles that make us crave the very thing we don’t really need: the cheap thrill of consumer madness, shopping, the working person’s metaphorical sugar rush.
So those of us who do have a sense of ethics and a deep-seated desire to do our bit for a better world tend to narrow our options down to particular causes. For many years, mine was vegetarianism: until I found out that even eating dairy products and eggs perpetuated the killing of (other) animals.
At the same time, my constant frustration is that between my low-paid toiling (admittedly, at a job that I really love) and my daily duties, there’s no time to try and make sense of the complex web of deceit that comprises the industrial machine we all rely on.
“I hate the word ‘empowering’, but this really could be empowering, if enough of us decide that the future of the planet is more important than a few short-term jobs on an oil rig.”
But this past week has been like a wonderful, slow-release epiphany that has partially restored my faith in people power.
Firstly, there was the saga of Countdown, which has been most interesting, on several levels. Early in the week, the supermarket’s parent company in Australia, Woolworths, was claimed to have been in support of a “buy Australian” campaign that had resulted in the taking of NZ products off their shelves. This rather jingoistic movement has been gathering pace for some time, and even on our supermarket shelves, I’ve noticed that quite a few Australian-made products now scream “Aussie-made!” as if we should care. I drink organic soymilk that is now made in Australia, and features the aforementioned screaming headline, but the thing is, before the brand was licensed to Australia, and was shipped from Hong Kong, it was a vastly superior product. I’ve written to the company several times over the years pointing out the fact that the Aussie product has neither the taste, nor texture of the original product (despite claiming to be the same thing, but using Australian soy beans) and have never had a satisfactory answer.
Then there were the allegations made in NZ Parliament about supposedly shonky and possibly illegal treatment of goods producers by Countdown in NZ. Now, I’m not suggesting that those allegations are true (hopefully the Commerce Commission will dig into the information, and ferret out the truth), but they do point to a lingering feeling about the Aussie behemoth and its long-known cavalier attitude to NZ. Like that other Australian-owned business, JB Hi-fi, Countdown has over the years also been accused of poor treatment of staff, and some time back there was television coverage of the poor deal its fruit and veg suppliers supposedly get. Some of them were surviving on such low margins they could barely survive, while the megacorp was making astounding profits for its shareholders.
And there’s the rub. While Countdown management might claim to simply being hard-nosed negotiators to “get the best deal for Kiwi consumers”, ultimately, under the current system, that management have one duty: to maximise profits to shareholders. Surely, that shows the big evil in our society, where the people who actually make or grow what we eat and consume live hard and low-paid lives, and the idle rich play with their shares and profit off that hard graft.
There’s something else that’s quite obvious about the way Countdown operates in NZ, too. Unlike Kiwi-owned supermarkets, they’re controlled centrally, not individually owned. Go and have a look and the result of this is obvious: each Countdown stocks more or less the same products, where local supermarkets vary immensely. There’s one branch of New World, for instance, that’s really big on organic produce. Countdown treats anything natural, organic, or vegetarian with a sneer. Even their baked goods (including their breads) state that they may content fish products. Again, I have enquired about this in the past, and never been given a satisfactory answer. Their yoghurt selection is nearly all fake yoghurt with no real live cultures, packed with sugar and something that should never be in yoghurt: gelatine. There’s little or no sign of vegetarian, let alone vegan, food options.
“What about creating a bottled water, for instance, that’s cheaper than fizzy diabetes in a bottle?”
In fact, the wider issue that inevitably arises when discussing the main dispensers of food products in NZ (supermarkets) is their shocking, immoral abnegation of responsibility in promoting healthy eating. They should tear down the edifice and start again, but that’s not likely. Imagine if the surfeit of valueless ‘food’ items was minimised, and instead, genuinely fresh produce was maximalised, and promoted. And imagine if supermarkets were to take on the responsibility of educating the public about healthy eating. What about creating a bottled water, for instance, that’s cheaper than fizzy diabetes in a bottle? Wouldn’t that give the nation a nice fuzzy feeling about them? How about it, Countdown?
But I’m off subject. What I meant to say was that what’s been amazing about this week is the people power that’s been expressed. People have taken note of both the Countdown incidents, and they’ve voted with their money: by going elsewhere. It’s not as if we don’t have options, and we’re using them. One politician speaking out and a possible enquiry might change things, in the long run. But what will have a bigger effect is dollars. Countdown relies on money from hard-working Kiwis to do what it does, and maybe, right about now, something is going ‘clunk’ in their heads, and they’re realising that it’s not really so great to be so brazenly exploiting the very customer-base they rely on.
“That’s the thing: if enough of us refuse to spend money with companies that have shonky dealings, environmentally or otherwise, then they simply have to change.”
The other example of people power that amazed me this past week was discussed in a very good, lengthy piece in Friday’s NZ Herald. Buried away in the business section was a story by Peter Huck about the divestment movement.
Most of us care about the environment, but feel powerless to make a change, while realising that we’re supporting the very evil that’s causing climate change and environmental degradation simply by using the fossil fuel in our cars. The story pointed out that once again, people power can affect change. It talked about customers withdrawing money from Westpac when it was found that the organisation had supported (in a roundabout way) deep sea drilling for oil. That’s the thing: if enough of us refuse to spend money with companies that have shonky dealings, environmentally or otherwise, then they simply have to change.
The article reported that the NZ was full of organisations with investments in fossil fuel business, including the NZ Superannuation Fund, and the Accident Compensation Corporation. On the other hand, yay for the God-botherers in the Anglican Church, who have divested from fossil fuel stocks.
It’s early days, and by no means a done deal, but it made me think: if organised well enough, this kind of people power could really work. I hate the word ‘empowering’, but this really could be empowering, if enough of us decide that the future of the planet is more important than a few short-term jobs on an oil rig.
What we could really do with are a few more reporters like Huck, getting into real stories like this, and others who help to clarify and simplify these issues for those of us like me, who find them almost mind-bogglingly complex. GARY STEEL