• The Road Toll

    New Zealand’s road toll has long been a perennial reproach to a country that likes to regard itself as being at the leading edge of advanced countries. But constant efforts by government to bring the toll down to be more in line with with other countries have been ineffectual.

    So, the toll, measured in terms of loss of life and injury, and the grief and suffering that attend them, continues as a blot and a blight on our national life. Why is our record in this respect proportionately worse than that of other comparable countries?

    It is relatively easy to build a catalogue of possible reasons. There is, first, the difficult terrain that our road-builders found when they undertook the task of cutting roads through our hills and valleys and forests. I have often marvelled at the huge efforts made by our forefathers – in an era before earth-moving equipment – when picks and shovels were all that was available.

    But the fact remains that our road network exhibits a higher proportion of tight bends, narrow stretches, cliffside edges and difficult surfaces than would be found elsewhere. And, it has to be acknowledged, that while Kiwis all regard themselves as good drivers, we are on the whole regrettably aggressive, lacking in skill and discipline, and prone to taking risks.

    Our drivers’ skills, or lack of them, reflect several aspects of New Zealand culture. A largely rural economy has bred a commendable spirit of self-reliance but also an impatience with rules and restrictions. A large number of New Zealand drivers are family taught and have learnt to drive on the farm and at a relatively early age, and have become used to light volumes of traffic on country roads.

    Add to that a drinking culture and the fact that you need a vehicle to get anywhere and the ingredients are there for a high incidence of drink-driving which remains one of the banes of our lives – and our current struggle with the spread of meth and other drugs adds to the problem.

    Then there is the modern blight of the mobile phone. My wife and I have lost count of the number of drivers we have seen engrossed in a telephone conversation – or, much worse, texting – while driving; if you find yourself following a vehicle whose speed varies unpredictably or that wanders across the white line, you can be pretty sure that the driver ’s attention is elsewhere.

    In any discussion of road accidents, the conversation will inevitably turn to foreign drivers, and it is certainly true that we have a higher proportion of drivers who are unfamiliar with our roads and traffic conditions than is the case in most countries – and, sadly, many reported accidents seem to involve foreign tourists.

    Whenever this topic is raised, my mind goes back to when I was, as a young man, on a motoring holiday in Spain. I had become accustomed, as I thought, to driving on the right-hand side of the road, but it so happened that on one morning, my companion and I had crossed to the left-hand side to stop for a cup of coffee. When we resumed our journey, I pulled out, on to the nearer left side which naturally felt very familiar to me, and it was only when I saw the oncoming traffic approaching me on that side, that I realised my mistake.

    So, we have to accept that accidents involving foreign drivers are all too likely and are part of the price we pay for our tourist earnings. The only remedy available to each of us is constant vigilance – vigilance we have to exercise anyway in respect of Kiwi drivers who may not know the road, or who are on the phone, or who are speeding, or who have been drinking or taking drugs.

    Improving our roads and increasing the policing are clearly part of the solution. But we also need to change our mindset. Driving is not the carefree spin on the open road that we believe we are all equipped to undertake, but is inherently dangerous. It requires all the skill, care, concentration and social responsibility we can muster.

    Bryan Gould
    20 January 2020

  • A Reckless Decision

    Donald Trump faces impeachment because he is accused of using the power of his office – that is, the power granted to him as President to be exercised on behalf of the country and the general interest – to further his own political interests, and, in particular, his wish to be re-elected.

    The evidence for this is a telephone call he made to the President of Ukraine, during which he was overheard “asking a favour” of President Zelensky; the favour requested was that a Ukrainian inquiry should be made into allegations of corruption involving the son of Joe Biden, who is leading the race for nomination as the Democratic candidate and who is, as shown by the polls, likely to beat Trump in the presidential election.

    The “favour” was linked to the American provision of large-scale military aid to Ukraine – aid that was, when the inquiry did not materialise, withheld on Trump’s orders.

    The recent assassination by American drone of a leading Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, when he was visiting Iraq, shows that Trump has learned nothing from his impeachment. He has been quick to claim credit for the assassination, which has certainly had the presumably desired effect of taking his impeachment out of the headlines – a classic example of a “wag the dog” foreign intervention designed to divert attention from domestic issues.

    But it again raises the question of whether the President has used the power of his office to further his campaign to be re-elected, rather than to serve the interests of the country. The assassination was almost certainly an illegal act – it was, after all, on one level, simply an act of murder.

    If Trump’s justification for it – that Sulameini was intending to launch an attack on American targets – is to be believed, the murder was an “act of war”, but one of which he failed to give prior notice to Congress, as he is obliged to do under American law.

    Whatever the constitutional and legal niceties, what is clearly beyond dispute is that the assassination has dangerously increased tensions in an already dangerous Middle East. The Iranians have vowed retaliation, and the Iraqis have asked American troops to leave their country, leaving the way clear for a revival of Isis.

    The world itself is now at risk, with nuclear-armed countries threatening each other. The tragedy is that, quite apart from the Trump-ordered assassination, the whole tinder-box is a Trump creation.

    In the years preceding Trump’s election victory in 2016, concern had been mounting, not least in Israel, at the possibility that Iran might be in process of acquiring nuclear weapons. Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, had recognised the danger and had negotiated an agreement under which the Iranians would halt their nuclear weapons programme, and would accept international inspection to verify that they had done so, in return for which the Americans and other Western countries would lift the trade sanctions they had imposed on Iran.

    Trump was so determined to reject and disown anything that Obama had achieved that, without consulting his European allies who were also parties to the agreement, he tore it up and again subjected to trade sanctions an Iran that was no longer under any obligation to terminate its nuclear weapons programme.

    Trump has now, as Joe Biden has said, thrown into the tinder box the “dynamite stick” of Sulameini’s assassination. It is hard to believe that any sane person, let alone world leader, could have acted so irresponsibly.

    His threat to respond to any Iranian retaliation by attacking Iranian cultural heritage sites reveals a complete abandonment of civilised behaviour and a disregard of international law.

    If Trump’s threatened withdrawal of American military aid as a means of extracting “a favour” from Ukraine was an impeachable offence, then his reckless pursuit of a favourable headline by murdering a foreign leader is even more so.

    This time, however, the world has more than an onlooker’s interest. An outbreak of nuclear war in the Middle East would be disastrous for us all. We must hope that American voters (and Republican senators) will recognise that neither we nor they we can any longer tolerate or afford a President who is prepared to jeopardise world peace so as to advance his own political interests.

  • What Caused the Bushfires

    The world has been quick to sympathise with the Australians over their bushfire catastrophe. But the world has also been quick to criticise their lack of response to the problems created by global warming and the consequent record high temperatures on the Australian continent.

    Before we rush to judgment, however, we should bear in mind that we call them “Australians” because of where they are, not who they are. “Who they are” is “us”.

    They are “us” because they are, as we are, part of a much wider entity. Today’s Australians display attitudes and behaviours that are shared by a large proportion of the world’s population. They represent all of us in grappling, or failing to grapple, with the issues that face them.

    The one thing we can all agree on when considering the scale of today’s Australian bushfires is that they are the consequence of human activity. The continent has experienced summer bushfires since time immemorial; it is the advent of humans in large numbers that seems to have made the difference and that has set the continent ablaze.

    And not just any old humans, but humans representing the epitome of western civilisation. The Australians have, on the whole, made a pretty good job of representing the rest of us; they have created what is widely recognised as a “good life” in their new home.

    But their failings have been real, too, and have been exposed by the bushfire disaster. We, and they, need to identify the factors and characteristics that have produced those failings, since we are very likely to share them.

    Australia, and New Zealand, and many other countries who would claim to be part of what we like to think of as the “advanced” or “developed” world, is a society, an economy and a culture built on the twin foundations of a market economy and political democracy.

    The driving force of a market economy, however, (and, most would say, its great strength) is the incessant pursuit of profit. Profit depends on demand and demand means consumption. Production is a response to demand and consumption, and without ever-increasing demand, a market economy falters; if sales, and therefore consumption and eventually production, fall, there is immediate talk of recession, business failures, unemployment and falling asset values.

    We can see how important demand and consumption are to the performance of the economy when we see how much is spent on advertising with the aim of creating ever higher demand – or a demand that never falters – for what is produced.

    But a literally insatiable demand for new production imposes a huge strain on the economy and eventually on society as a whole. It is not just that, in a world with finite resources, a continued growth in consumption will necessarily reduce the stock of resources; it is also that the processes required to meet that growth in consumption – the exploitation of fossil fuels, for example – will upset the natural balance on which life depends.

    The market economy is, as our history shows, a tyrannical master. Everything – other forms of life, pure air and water – is grist to the mill, not least the labour of working people which becomes just another factor of production.

    Our civilisation has attempted to restrain these aspects of a market economy by establishing a system of government based on political democracy. But the attempt has failed. Democratic elections have become nothing more than bidding wars in which the rival parties try to outdo each other in promising the voters ever greater levels of consumption.

    A responsible politician, offering stable or reduced consumption in the common interest, will be soundly rebuffed. Democracy, in other words, has become a means of reinforcing the very aspects of a modern economy that it is meant to restrain.

    If we, and the Australians, are to avoid further environmental catastrophes, we have to be ready to reconsider some of our most fundamental beliefs about how to create a successful and sustainable society. In seeking an explanation for the bushfires and other similar crises, we need look no further than ourselves. Ask not who tolled the bell; we did.

    Bryan Gould
    9 January 2020

  • 20/20 Vision

    As we enter the new year, the fact that it is year 2020 may give us some hope that we will see the future more clearly and that things are, accordingly, about to get better. But if we are really on the threshold of a new era, in which we are all blessed with perfect vision as to what is to come, what might we expect to see?

    The bad news is that 20/20 vision is sure to alert us to a number of developments that are less than welcome. It may be, therefore, that seeing clearly into the future will show us what must be changed or avoided, rather than what we might welcome or whose arrival we might wish to hasten.

    There are, sadly, a number of issues that are already with us or on the horizon and to which our natural response might be to slam on the brakes or do a sudden u-turn. And worse, they tend to be issues in respect of which we are powerless bystanders or onlookers, with little or no capacity to change the course of events.

    Take, for instance, the supposed “world leaders” who are likely to be still with us. Donald Trump, whose international policy blunders have already made the world a more dangerous place, is already talking about space – not so much as “the new frontier” as “the new theatre of war”. The rest of the “free world” might well be glad to see the back of him, but his “base” are all too likely to want him re-elected.

    And what about Vladimir Putin? The Russian leader seems determined not to be trumped by Trump and is now boasting about the Russian development of new “hypersonic” nuclear missiles which will, he maintains, give Russia the advantage over the US. Are we really happy to see our futures in the hands of such madmen?

    But then there are other issues, of equal or even greater significance and carrying perhaps even worse threats to our survival, where we are not powerless to make a change – not so much as individuals but through adding our voices to a growing consensus on what needs to be done.

    Global warming is one such issue – an issue which so threatens the survival of the human race that it has provoked protests and demonstrations around the world. On global warming, at least, we are not obliged to sit quietly and take what comes – we can ensure that our leaders understand the strength of our opinions and feelings and that, before it is too late, they take the actions that are needed if the worst is to be avoided.

    But these issues are all global in scale and many will feel that they are going to be decided by those well beyond our sphere of influence. So, is there nothing we can do as individuals in the new year that will make a difference?

    I believe that there are things we can do in the new year and beyond that will make our world safer and more enjoyable. The way we each behave to others is entirely within our own individual control, and something we can decide for ourselves. We can all make our own lives happier and more fulfilling if we contribute to a society that functions on the basis of kindness to each other and to all the other living creatures with whom we share the planet.

    We all know the pleasure that acts of kindness bring to us – whether we are the initiators or the recipients. My wife and I have the good fortune to live in a small community where kindness is the dominant quality and prevailing ethos. It makes us all feel better – about ourselves and about each other, and it gives us hope that humanity can find a way to save itself from the perils that face us.

    We can each set our own standards as to how we live our lives and treat others. 20/20 vision, as we enter the new year, should help us to plot a course that avoids the obvious pitfalls and makes the most for all of us of what life in our beautiful country can offer us.

    Bryan Gould
    6 January 2020

  • An Australian Christmas

    Christmas, as is often said, is a time for families – and, I’m glad to say, we are no exception. My wife and I have had the pleasure of being joined this year by our son, his wife and their three (now grown-up) children from the UK.

    They are no strangers to New Zealand, having holidayed here repeatedly over the years – and they are always delighted to see not only their grandparents but also their New Zealand aunt and three New Zealand cousins. As a result, we have had a houseful of no fewer than eleven people and, because the English and New Zealand cousins all get on so well (give or take some friendly rivalry and differing views over the odd rugby or cricket contest), a wonderful time is guaranteed for all.

    On an earlier visit, a couple of years ago, our visiting UK family all took the trip to White Island, and on their return back home regaled their friends with accounts of what they had seen. So they had a special interest in, and were aghast at, the tragic outcomes of the eruption on Whakaari and have been fascinated and alarmed at the plumes of steam still rising from the island and visible from our deck.

    But the disaster that has also captured our attention over the holiday period has been the bush fires raging out of control in Australia. It has been hard to credit the pictures of flames engulfing vast areas of bush and pasture, destroying houses, buildings and cars – to say nothing of the fatalities and injuries, and the impact on wild life. Whole towns are threatened, and air quality in the big cities has become a health hazard.

    Even at this time of Christmas celebration and joy, it behoves us to pause for at least a moment and to consider the full implications of the Australian nightmare. The message being delivered by the flames is that human habitation in Australia is now seriously under threat – and, furthermore, that it is human habitation that has itself created the crisis.

    When a land mass the size of Australia heats to its current level, we are perilously close to the point of no return. The record temperatures are not just the consequence of global warming but have become a major contributor to it. Australia has become, first, a huge repository of stored heat and, secondly, a damaging source of heat released into the atmosphere.

    The Australian Prime Minster, Scott Morrison, attracted fierce criticism for departing on holiday to Hawaii while his countrymen were burning up. But his real dereliction of duty has been to lead a government whose programme, despite the growing evidence that climate change now threatens his country, is to intensify and apply the free-market doctrines that have produced global heating in the first place.

    There is no salvation for any of us (and we are all potentially likely to face Australian-style problems if nothing changes) if we go on asserting that nothing need change – and that “business as usual” must be maintained.

    If further global warming is to be avoided, or at least restrained, we have to accept that the so-called “free market” cannot be allowed to go on calling the shots. The market has many strengths but the single bottom line is not one of them. If we are to treat global warming seriously, we have to adopt an economic system that takes account of wider considerations than simply profit and loss and the quest for the best financial return on investment.

    What this means – that government must intercede (in the public interest) in business and in private sector operations – will be unpalatable to many. But the choice is clear – do we give priority to political dogma or to the future of the planet?

    Now is the time to put to the test the strength of our resolve and to meet our obligations to future generations. If the human race is to have a future, and if our planet is to remain habitable, the time to act is now. Our own government, no less than their Australian counterparts, must now show, on issues like offshore drilling for oil, that it recognises the seriousness of the challenge.

    Bryan Gould

    25 December 2019